New Year’s Resolutions for Democrats

Happy New Year to all my friends in DC! I do miss you all, although I am glad also for the little distance I have achieved. I wish travel was easier but meanwhile there is much music, art, beauty, books, and fun here in Jackson and New Orleans (where I co-reside these days).

From the vantage point of a little distance, many Democrats in Washington seem to be struggling with message. So here are some suggested New Year’s message resolutions from a thousand miles (give or take) to the South.

1. Talk about what people care about. Talking about policy and programs that, granted, may benefit us all in the years to come just seems off to people who are thinking about now. People have too many immediate economic problems and COVID frustrations to want to hear about much else.

2. Do not declare pre-mature victories. Even major legislative victories do not fill the gas tank, fix the supply chain, or take down the restaurant signs apologizing for slow service due to staff shortages. Better to communicate you know what the problems are and are working on it than that you have solved a problem people didn’t even know was there when they are focused on self-evident ones they face day-to-day.

3. Stick to one message at a time. If you are arguing to preserve what has been settled law for two generations, that women should be able to terminate a pregnancy that was unintended and/or is a threat to them, then make that argument. There is no need to load it up with other agendas. You lose the main point.

4. Remember that dollars are costs not benefits. Don’t put them in the lede. When the government spends a billion or so on something that is big spending. What problems did it solve? How did we make people’s lives easier or better? The amount may matter a lot legislatively but they all sound like big numbers. Example: That there will be bike lanes in all five boroughs of NYC is great for people who bike there; the amount it will cost is just that.

5. Say what you mean. We are “protecting” a damaged environment when we need to salvage it. We “give” groups what they “deserve” and then wonder why people think we are about entitlements. Better to describe the benefit – preferably a universal one – than to declare a circumscribed entitlement. Same with the number of things we declare to be a “right.” Something can be sensible – or help the country – without it being a right. And while I understand “workers” and “families,” I have never really have gotten the working families thing except as a linguistic compromise between “families first” and “working people”. Consider describing the benefit and leaving off the preamble “working families deserve…” The edit will add clarity, at least.

Aside: The Sunday NYTimes includes a piece on whether Stacey Abrams is a moderate or a progressive. I can’t answer that but I can say she uses language with admirable precision without a lot of symbolic wrapping paper.

6. Talk about Republicans sparingly. Yes, many of them are ideologically driven white supremacists who are taking actions that undermine democracy and threaten the planet. But those things are more important than partisanship. When you frame issues in partisan terms rather than as choices we need to make, you end up belittling the matters at hand. We need to decide whether it will be easier or harder for people to vote; whether it is right or wrong to make it harder for some citizens to vote than others; whether we still believe in one person-one vote. Plenty of people think it should be equally easy and convenient for everyone to vote but do not see that Republicans are undermining our democracy. Besides, the Republicans are not the point.

7. Stop attacking each other. I might not love The Squad or Joe Manchin, and can argue with either. I see zero value in suggesting either are ruining the party because that just says the party is ruined. Stick to the point. Avoid the party and the personalities.

8. Avoid abstractions. Clearly framed concrete decisions give people a context for taking a position. Vitriol on both sides just sounds like, well, politics. Republicans commit bad vitriolic writing too, of course. Roger Wicker, the more tolerable Senator from Mississippi, put out a piece subtitled “51 Senators put Socialist agenda on life support.” I presumed that was to keep it from dying, right?

9. Quit listing constituencies. Way too many times there is political rhetoric followed by the specific consequences for Latinx people, the black community, and women. We will just slide by the gender-neutralizing of the Spanish language for now and simply note that listed constituencies exclude others without anyone actually feeling more included by being listed.

10. Lighten up. If everything is portentous, how can we know what you think is important?

Happy 2022! There were some good moments in 2021 (like January 20th and the day I got a condo in New Orleans). But there is room for improvement in 2022.

Left v. Center? Bottom-Up!

The media has been vaunting the divide between the Democrats’ left and center and how the cleavage threatens Democrats’ tenuous majority. Here, a thousand miles outside the Beltway, a lot of the conversation seems pretty obscure: Like who the “squad,” a crew of House members with a talent for press relations and a vocal national constituency, do and do not like among Biden insiders; and how activist slogans designed to attract attention can put Democratic candidates in an uncomfortable vise.

Once we are past the immediacy of the pandemic, Democrats face an overriding challenge that I believe will determine whether we expand or contract our narrow majority: whether Americans are convinced Democrats have an agenda that will bring sustained economic growth that benefits most of us, and particularly lower and middle income Americans. That is what voters want of their leadership and so a successful economic agenda is necessary to Democratic success.

There are three reasons for the utter centrality of economic issues.

Urgency. We almost lost our democracy in no small measure because incomes for lower and middle income Americans have been falling behind since at least the early 1980s. They know it. They are angry about it. They think the Republicans have more to say about it than the Democrats do.

For a refresher on income trends see It shows that wealth for lower and middle income households has been declining since 1983. It also shows that people recognize that income inequality is growing. “Income inequality” is not the framing that engages them – they are more concerned about their family than the abstraction. Polling did not ask whether they favor or oppose making more money for the same amount of work, because it doesn’t have to ask that obvious question. Polling does show that the economy rated more highly than other issues, except for the immediacy of health care and the pandemic in some polling. (See Q9 in

President-Elect Biden won despite Trump having an advantage on the economy because of Trump’s perceived character, craziness, and his failures to address the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats cannot expect to keep winning without a coherent economic narrative. They should expect continued deep divisions on climate change, racial justice, and immigration if lower and middle income white voters (and the issues are not exclusively with whites) continue to feel a Republican narrative of tax cuts combined with hostility to liberals, black people, and immigrants is closer to their interests than whatever building back better ultimately means in economic terms.

A coherent and cohesive economic narrative leaves room for internal disagreement in its particulars. The shape of the program and its emerging narrative must, most of all, be practical. It needs to work. Ideology is secondary to that overarching goal.

Confidence in Leadership. Voters confidence in their government and their political system is at a low point and their confidence in the electoral process has dropped.

People need to feel their government can respond to them and their needs. A coronavirus vaccine will doubtless help, as will real and consistent information before then on how to stay safe. But if they continue to believe the rich get richer while the poor and the middle class get left behind, as they have felt for a generation, then our democracy will continue to be under threat because too many will feel it does not works for them. Voters’ anger at being, in their view, ignored produced a Trump in the first place. Trump will not be the last demagogue.

Room for a Broader Agenda. Racial justice, climate change, and immigration are each critical issues – and there are more. But realities on these in particular have been masked by growing anger at stagnant incomes and reduced wealth. I am certainly not suggesting waiting on any of these issues. I am asserting that voters must see the economic agenda as central and as inclusive.

Black people and immigrants are disproportionately represented among those whose incomes have stagnated. Increasing their wealth is part of the economic agenda although the central thrust must be lifting incomes for the many who need it. If the outcome and its narrative are successful, there is more room to build support for reality-based approaches to America’s history and to our current crises.

From my perspective, we all owe a debt to Black Lives Matters protesters and to grassroots organizing for racial and economic justice throughout our history. Change generally comes from the bottom and not from the top. Responsible governance listens to grassroots voices. Those crying out for wage growth – even though they are sometimes doing so in resentful and unappealing ways – also need to be heard if we are to restore our democratic equilibrium moving forward.

New Year’s Irresolutions and the Democratic Field

This post gives my end of the year thoughts on the Democratic field.  I am writing it so we can all look back in a few months and see how wrong it was, and, indeed, many factors provide uncertainty about what the next few months will bring. 

Certainly many of my early perceptions were misplaced:  Joe Biden has had more staying power than I (and others) predicted.  In the Trump Era electability has remained voters’ top criterion, much as it did in 2004.  Further, while I believed Elizabeth Warren could get past Medicare for All, she has not yet done so and other candidates seem stalled in front of their own hurdles as well.  

Smarter – or more cautious – people than I would have the good sense to stop making predictions.  Throwing such good sense to the wind, here are some things that seem true or likely to me as we enter the election year: 

1.  The nominee will be chosen from the candidates who currently constitute the top five:  Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren (in alphabetical order).    I can come up with scenarios in which someone else breaks through – and a meteor could hit a debate stage.  But the other scenarios are almost as unlikely as the meteor strike.  

2.  Joe Biden is the odds on favorite.  I didn’t think this would be true at this point but it seems to be.  His lead has had staying power and while he may not win Iowa or New Hampshire, he could still win one or both, and he remains the overwhelming favorite in South Carolina which protects his staying power.

3. New Hampshire seems to me unlikely to ratify Iowa, both because it generally doesn’t and because high participation of independents in New Hampshire (in the absence of a heated Republican primary), means a very different electorate in partisan and ideological terms than in Iowa.  (If this prediction is wrong, #5 is wrong too.) 

4.  Michael Bloomberg will play a powerful and positive role in the election.  He is building a national organization and is a strong and strategic voice against Trump.  He will play a major role in the fall, but he will not be the nominee.  He will, however, offer critical protection for the nominee against Russian and right-wing craziness.  

5.   The contest will continue past Super Tuesday and likely at least through April 11, when 87 percent of the delegates will have been chosen.  The field will narrow by Super Tuesday, but with four candidates with the likely capacity to continue, it will be difficult for the eventual nominee to secure a first ballot delegate majority (unless other candidates choose to bring it to a close, which is unlikely). 

 6.  If more than two candidates remain viable in the race, we are unlikely to have a first ballot nominee.  Viable in this case means meeting the 15 percent threshold for delegate allocation in most congressional districts.  The way delegate thresholds work, if only one candidate meets the threshold that candidate wins all the delegates.  If the result is close among multiple candidates, each with more than 15 percent support, whole delegates are allocated roughly proportionately, which can often mean each candidate gets the same number of delegates.  In the final rounds, if Biden is still in the mix, his breadth of support will help him but thresholds make it very hard to win a majority of delegates with three or four contenders strong enough to accrue delegates.  (Oddly, five contenders make it easier for one to dominate as it becomes more likely that only one is above threshold – a scenario that could help Sanders with his smaller but stronger base.)    

7.  After the first four states, delegate math will be much more important, and national polling even less important than it is now.  National polling has never been very meaningful as there is no national primary but rather a sequence of state primaries and caucuses.  Given that polls do not accurately predict delegates, national polls become even less important.   

8.  Electability against Trump will remain the top criterion for a plurality of Democratic voters.   Voters may be ready to put all their internal differences aside to defeat Trump, but they will not erase them entirely.  Leaders across the ideological and geographic spectrum have roles to play in helping voters and activists retain focus on winning in November 2020.   The nominee will need them as part of the process, and in becoming the nominee.     

9.  The Vice-Presidential pick will be both more important and more controversial than in years past.  The general rule for picking a VP candidate is to do no harm as people generally vote for the top of the ticket. The divides within the party point to a need for ticket balancing, which cannot make everyone happy.

10.  The November election will result in a Democratic president and Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress.  That can and will happen even with a narrow Electoral College win given the combination of Republican incumbents in states the Democrats will likely win (like Maine and Colorado), those in competitive states (like Arizona and North Carolina), and those Republican Senators with individual problems (like Lindsey Graham and Kelly Loeffler).  

So, I end the year with nervous and irresolute optimism that is not, I hope, misplaced.  I recognize the need for caution as the impeachment trial, the candidates themselves, the failure to choose a nominee early, and intraparty schisms will create disruption.  Those factors could bring about a circular firing squad among Democrats.  There is some protection from that in shared seriousness of purpose about defeating Trump, which I trust continues.

May we all have a good New Year.

Big Structural Change

Increasingly, the Democratic presidential nomination seems a battle between former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren.  Senator Bernie Sanders impacts the race but with scant signs of growth in his support.  Senator Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg still hold on to smaller constituencies, with life in other candidacies, including Senators Booker and Klobuchar, and with flashes of passion from former Congressman O’Rourke. 

There is still time for another candidate to emerge but the race has remained in near stasis as summer has turned to fall. 

The two leaders – Biden and Warren – are the two candidates who have presented the clearest rationales for their candidacy.  Biden fundamentally promises a return to the Obama years and Warren pledges big structural change.  The latter is making some observers nervous, resulting in a spate of polls that show general election voters are not yet ready to embrace big structural change.

The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows a plurality of non-Democratic primary voters supporting smaller scale policy changes and majority opposition to some of Warren’s policy proposals.  The centrist Democratic organization Third Way presents data that voters want a more centrist approach on health care rather than Medicare for all.  CNN continues to show that voters prefer a candidate who can defeat Trump over one with whom they agree on the issues, which may be a false choice if they can have both.   

There are many reasons to be anxious about the 2020 election.  The stakes are extraordinarily high, we are now in an impeachment process, and, with over a year to go, many factors are simply unknowable, including the progress of Democratic candidates as they move toward the nomination and the general election, the erratic behavior of the president, and the potential for corruption of the process.

I am not, however, concerned about Warren’s articulation of the need for big structural change.  Here’s why:

  •  Warren has left herself a lot of room to define the nature of structural change.  The words establish her as the change candidate, and as a clear contrast to Biden’s return to the recent past.  As the leading woman candidate, and a Biden alternative, she would represent change in any case. Embracing that positioning seems smart and many of her proposed policies, like increasing taxes on the super wealthy, are in fact broadly popular.
  • Warren has the capacity to be a reform candidate. She is financing her campaign differently than the other candidates, and she is undaunted by demands of both big corporate interests and the super-wealthy. For the 30 years I was in polling, messaging of standing up to big corporate interests to bring change has been a strong elixir. Back in 1990, in polling for the late Senator Wellstone (who, for the record, was always clear he didn’t listen to his polling), 72 percent of Minnesotans said the problem in Congress was more that its members listened to special interests than that problems were beyond government solution. Similar results have replicated in the interim but few candidates can authentically articulate the message. Despite two Pinocchios from the Washington Post, Warren is uniquely able to articulate that her presidency would listen and respond to people and not to special interests (hopefully combined with a plan for economic growth and small business development). Genuine reform in how we conduct business in Washington would be big structural change.
  • Voters will likely be more interested in the results than in the process of change.  Warren has a variety of plans – and ways of paying for them that do not require tax increases on the middle class.  Voters favor lower health care costs, more accessible post-secondary education, more economic opportunity, fair treatment and fair pay in the work place, and Warren is talking about these issues.  Voters are not – at this point – ready to embrace Medicare for all but they may also understand that it won’t happen unless they do and there are interim steps in the process they may endorse moving forward. 
  • The impeachment process may change the context.  On the downside, it may make Washington and Congress look even more partisan and angry.  On the upside, it may focus discussion of the threats of the Trump presidency.  Democrats have so many complaints about Trump that our attacks are like spam – diverse, diffuse, and occasionally obscure to some people.  That he represents a threat to national security and to the electoral process in which people choose their own leaders can become central to arguments against him.  In either case, the process may spur greater interest in change from business as usual in Washington even if the desire for change encompasses both parties.     

None of this discussion should suggest I do not have anxieties about the leading candidates.  My principal anxiety about Warren is whether she will appear the Harvard professor who needs to be the smartest in the room, or whether she is the woman of blue collar roots motivated by instincts of caregiving and reform.  Candidate imagery and gender interact, and I am sure her campaign is well aware of the image downsides of being the “Smart Girl.”  As for Biden, his strength is in a perception that he is a known quantity and a decent man, who represents little that is radical or risky.  Other than gaffes that can undermine perceived steadiness, I worry that he will not connect with younger voters whose heightened participation is essential to prevent this electorate from being older than the 2016 electorate, a demographic change that would favor Trump.        

Additionally, Sanders may garner more support than I am crediting him with here and others may emerge.  There is room for both to happen.  A three or four candidate late field can spur another anxiety:  that no one have a majority of delegates going into the convention. 

I am not, however, anxious that Warren is the candidate of big change.  If the country moves from Trump to Warren, it will be a big change – in structure, process, and result. 

Shortly after the 2016 election, I had lunch with a colleague whom I respect.  I noted that in politics as well as physics, for every action there is a reaction.  We went from a brilliant, erudite President who believed in meritocracy to the current incumbent.  The next wave, I suggested, could bring big change.  Maybe, my colleague responded, but we are in for a whole lot of hurt in the meantime.  His prediction was correct.  We will see if mine was as well.