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Best in the Big Tent: March 2023
Biden pivots to the center while No Labels swings right. Here are the top big-tent stories from the last month.
Biden Pivots to the Center
Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that “after two years championing progressive priorities, the president is speaking more to the concerns of the political middle as he prepares to announce a campaign for a second term.”
As the piece explores, Biden’s apparent shift to the middle on key issues did not come out of nowhere. The president is in touch with the American mainstream and understands what it takes to win the middle and govern on issues like crime and immigration (for more on that, see our poll on the DC crime resolution).
The president’s shift to the center on policy might be newsworthy, but this middle-out orientation has always been Joe Biden. David Leonhardt explores How Biden Thinks:
Even if you think his age should be disqualifying for 2024, Biden’s analysis of American politics is worth considering. He believes that he understands public opinion in ways that many of his fellow Democrats do not, and there is reason to think he is correct.
In his first campaign in 1972, Biden differentiated from the far-left:
On economic issues, he ran as a populist. He complained about “millionaires who don’t pay any taxes at all” and “billion-dollar corporations who want a ride on the public’s back.” On other issues, Biden signaled that he was more moderate. He called for an end to the Vietnam War while also opposing amnesty for draft dodgers. He said the police should focus less on marijuana busts while also opposing legalization. He distanced himself from McGovern’s student volunteers. “I’m not as liberal as most people think,” Biden told a Delaware newspaper.
That brand-differentiation resulted in a stunning overperformance:
On Election Day, McGovern lost every state except Massachusetts and received less than 40 percent of the vote in Delaware. Biden won a shocking upset that launched his long Senate career.
The lessons of that campaign continue to shape his mainstream orientation to politics:
Today, when Biden reminisces about the McGovern campaign, he uses the phrase “limousine liberals,” which was coined in 1969. “They forgot about the neighborhood I grew up in,” he has said. The key lesson was that the rest of America looked more like Biden’s old neighborhood in Scranton, Pa., than like Hollywood or the Ivy League.
Of course, Leonhardt notes, the elite far-left problem Biden confronted in 1972 can be understood in many ways as a precursor to the woes of today’s Democratic Party:
The Democratic Party’s upscale liberalism has alienated voters of color, too. Latinos have become more Republican in the past few years; one recent analysis of the Latino vote found that liberals’ stridency on Covid precautions and their lack of concern about border security have harmed Democrats. Many Black voters, for their part, hold more moderate views on crime, immigration and gender issues than liberal professionals do.
Through it all, Biden has remained himself:
Biden’s own rise to presidency highlighted this dynamic. He ran as Joe from Scranton — and Black voters in South Carolina rescued his campaign. Affluent moderates often preferred Michael Bloomberg or Pete Buttigieg, while affluent progressives liked Elizabeth Warren.
If the president decides to run again in 2024, this is who we can expect to see on the campaign trail.
No Labels Swings Right
The authoritarian right and the far-left have no better friend than the anti-partisan center. Instead of helping grow robust moderate partisan factions, No Labels has taken to bolstering the authoritarian right with made-for-Fox-News attacks on the Jan. 6th Commission and giving fodder to the far-left by helping build the noxious “both parties are the same” echo chamber.
No story better illustrates the self-immolating nature of the anti-partisan center than No Labels’ “Insurance Policy” to gain ballot access for a 2024 third-party presidential bid.
Critics, led by Third Way, have pointed out that the absurd plan to run a moderate third-party “Unity Ticket” in the next cycle would amount to little more than re-electing Donald Trump or his successor:
No Labels is arguing this is a unique historical moment that gives their “unity ticket” a real shot at winning the White House. But that is an illusion. The data and historical evidence are clear: no third-party candidate would come close to winning…
Rather than producing a third-party ticket that would defy the overwhelming odds and win, No Labels is on track to field a spoiler who would re-elect Trump or a Trump-like Republican.
The Third Way analysis lays out the straightforward case for why No Labels’ effort, if successful, would harm Democrats and benefit Republicans next cycle. In their words:
2016 Third-Party Voters went for Biden in 2020: According to AP Votecast, Biden won voters who had backed Jill Stein and Gary Johnson by 30 points. Such voters could peel away to the No Labels candidate in 2024 and hand victory to Trump.
“Double Haters” Went for Biden: Voters who do not like either major party candidate would tend to back Democrats in a forced choice. Biden won “double haters” in 2020 by 15 points. (Clinton lost those voters by 17 points in 2016.) Giving them a third-party choice clearly helps the GOP.
Biden is More Vulnerable in Close States: In 2020, Biden won six of the seven states where the margin was three points or less. Even a paltry third-party performance would put 79 Biden electoral votes at risk (GA, AZ, WI, PA, NV, and MI).
No Labels is Targeting Blue States: The No Labels map gives away the game: they project to win 2/3 of their electoral votes in states that Biden won in 2020. So, by their own admission, their prime targets are voters who would otherwise back the Democrat.
But most damaging is how No Labels justifies their quixotic project: by claiming that there isn’t a credible moderate option within our current two-party system. As The New Republic points out, they have to entirely ignore lifelong centrist Joe Biden in a flimsy attempt to make their argument. (It’s worth watching the group’s new video promoting their “insurance policy”.)
Why might No Labels be throwing in the towel on the mainstream moderate at the top of the Democratic ticket in favor of a spoiler that would elect an authoritarian?
As Norm Ornstein and Dennis Aftergut point out in The Bulwark, the formerly bipartisan group appears to have been captured by Trump money:
While No Labels operates “dark money” PACs whose contributors are hidden, one of its backers has been billionaire Republican megadonor Nelson Peltz, a contributor to Georgia Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both defeated in 2020; election denier Sean Parnell, who was Trump’s original endorsed Senate candidate in Pennsylvania last year; Democrat-turned-Fox News contributor Tulsi Gabbard; and House Republican Majority Whip Steve Scalise. And the Daily Beast reported in 2018 that No Labels raised money from “recurring” megadonors including Trump supporter John Catsimatidis and Marc Rowan, a contributor to Lindsey Graham, Ron Johnson, and Mehmet Oz in the midterms.
As for the path forward, there’s big-tent consensus here. The center-left and the far-left don’t agree on everything, but they’re aligned on this one: No Labels’ presidential spoiler must be stopped.
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Tweet of the Month
Mainstreaming the Mainstream
Check out highlights from the past month in essential big-tent outlets.
But first, here are the best of the rest…
Democrats’ simple equation to win the culture wars: 2+2=4 by Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post:
In short, instead of scampering around to debunk each new outrageous claim or tactic, pro-democracy forces should return to an historically powerful message: A party that will tell you 2+2=5 is out to quash democracy itself. Biden was on to something: Better to be on the side of truth.
Why so many Americans feel left out by Theodore R. Johnson in The Washington Post:
Today’s politics tap feelings of non-belonging and seek others to blame for the feeling. The problem with this framing is obvious: To feel like you belong — whoever you are — you must find someone else to be excluded. A nation as large and diverse as the United States cannot afford to have every group difference thus weaponized. But that’s exactly what the crisis of belonging is exacerbating: social and political divisiveness along lines of party, race, class, geography, sexual orientation and gender.
What We Owe The Other Side—And Our Own—in Civil Society by Daniel Stid:
In our cacophonous democracy, we are obliged to develop expansive coalitions of allies who share our broad goals (if not all our specific orthodoxies). Ultimately, we need to engage our opponents not because of what we owe them, but because of what we owe our team members and coalition partners. Only by engaging with reasonable critics on the other side can we ensure we are being sufficiently hospitable to allies who are, or could be, on ours.
Just how big should the House be? Let’s do the math by Danielle Allen in The Washington Post:
Originally, using a rounding-down method, congressional districts had a ratio of constituents to representative ranging from 33,159 (New York) to 55,540 (Delaware), according to independent scholar Michael Rosin… Now, however, with the growing population and the House frozen at 435 seats, the spread runs from about 500,000 constituents for each of Rhode Island’s and Montana’s members and 580,000 constituents for Wyoming’s single member to 755,000 for each of California’s 52 representatives and 778,000 for each of Florida’s 28 representatives.
Progressives need to embrace progress by Noah Smith:
Progressives are a bit like an advancing army that’s being held up by a minefield that they themselves laid back when they were in retreat. In other words, progressives should refocus on the idea of progress — i.e., of actually getting things built and producing progressive outcomes. They should refocus on goals and be flexible on methods, instead of instinctively defaulting to the same old approaches they used in 1996 or 1976.
The Self-Destructive Effects of Progressive Sadness by David Brooks in The New York Times:
Liberal sadness was maladaptive because the mind-set didn’t increase people’s sense of agency; it decreased it. Trying to pass legislation grounds your thought in reality and can lead to real change. But when you treat politics as an emotional display, you end up making yourself and everybody else feel afflicted and powerless.
Best of the (Newly Expanded!) Liberal Patriot
The Democrats’ Coming Asian Voter Problem Has Arrived by Ruy Teixeira:
“In 2022, Asian voter defection from the Democrats was more broad-based than in 2020. Nationwide the Democratic advantage among Asian voters declined 12 points relative to 2020. And there were abundant signs that Asian voters in many urban neighborhoods were slipping away from the Democrats. In New York City, the only precinct in Manhattan to vote for Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin was in Chinatown. In Brooklyn and Queens, Zeldin outpaced Democrat Kathy Hochul in the heavily Chinese 47th and 49th Assembly Districts and 17th State Senate District in Brooklyn. Zeldin also won the 40th Assembly District based in Flushing, which is dominated by Chinese and Korean immigrants.”
American Patriotism Hasn't Cratered Just Yet by Peter Juul and John Halpin:
Patriotism means different things to Americans, and there are reasons people might get down on America: the country has taken a lot of knocks in the past decade and many people rightly worry about the future in terms of economic stability and individual opportunities. But all in all, most Americans take pride in their country and want to see our nation—and all our people—do well.
How Democrats Should Handle the Culture Wars by Ruy Teixeira:
The way out of this culture wars impasse lies in neither option one (ignore) nor option two (attack) nor in the confused mix of these two options that currently defines the Democratic approach. The answer lies instead in option three: defuse. This means moving aggressively to neutralize vulnerabilities in these areas by (a) dissociating the party from extreme positions in their own ranks; and (b) embracing a common-sense approach to these issues which typically aligns well with both Democratic values and public opinion.
White College Graduates Are the Democrats’ New BFF by Ruy Teixeira:
Putting this together with the trend data, this means that, as the Democrats have picked up more white college voters, they are adding many more ideologically consistent liberals, while shedding less ideological nonwhites with mixed policy preferences. Strikingly, among the most liberal voters—those who agree with liberal positions more than 90 percent of the time—there are 20 times more white college than black voters.
Best of Slow Boring
The strange death of education reform, part one by Matt Yglesias:
I think this Chicago election is emblematic of the overall theme of this series: contemporary American politics is deeply shaped by the early 21st-century education reform wars, but education reform itself has died off in favor of a very different set of disputes. To understand any of this, though, we need to start with the question of what education reform was.
The strange death of education reform, part two by Matt Yglesias:
In life, educational inequality is, mechanically, the precursor to many other forms of inequality. And it’s challenging to have a coherent discussion about anything related to racial inequality in the United States that doesn’t at least acknowledge the point that the achievement gap, per Hayes’ account, was at one time a major focus of the public discourse. I’ve argued previously that suppression of the pipeline discussion has become a major source of dysfunction inside progressive nonprofits.
Best of The Bulwark
News That Just Makes You Sick by Mona Charen:
The Wall Street Journal article about the poll, conducted jointly by the Journal and NORC at the University of Chicago, is heavy on plunging arrows and dire trends: “Patriotism, religious faith, having children and other priorities that helped define the national character for generations are receding in importance to Americans, a new Wall Street Journal-NORC poll finds.” …But when you look at the crosstabs, you discover that while it’s true that only 38 percent of respondents said patriotism is “very important” to them, another 35 percent said it was “somewhat important” for a total of 73 percent who still value it. And while only 58 percent say “tolerance for others” is very important, an additional 32 percent say it’s at least somewhat important for a total of 90 percent.
Joe Biden Wants You to Know He’s Not Soft on Crime by Jill Lawrence:
This is not a hard call for Biden and Democrats. Most of them champion statehood for the district, but that’s an aspiration for now—while crime is a clear and present danger both on the streets and to their party. A stronger focus on crime in a few House races last year might have kept Democrats in control of that chamber. In 2024 they will be trying to win back the House and hold both the presidency and their Senate majority in a very tough year, and the attacks on crime are already coming.
Best of The Welcome Party
Voters have a nuanced view aligned with the direction of President Joe Biden. Voters are generally more aligned with Republicans on issues of crime and criminal justice, but they place Biden to the center of his party, agree with his stance on the DC crime bill, and support his role in the 1994 crime bill.
The problem isn’t a lack of talented Americans who can empathize with middle-of-the-road voters. The problem is a lack of explicitly middle-of-the-road staffers operating as part of an explicitly moderate ecosystem working on explicitly big-tent projects. This is important because, under the current dynamics, almost any entity left of center that is not explicitly moderate eventually becomes another piece of the left’s infrastructure.
These are important explainers for why we’re going to hear more about the president’s centrist streak. But beyond policy and political considerations, we think there’s something deeper going on with Joe Biden’s centrism — and it’s been going on for some time. Biden’s mainstream, middle-out orientation doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s rooted in a deep sense of empathy, optimism, and patriotism.
Will ChatGPT Influence the 2024 Election? by Hugh Jones:
There's one domain where ChatGPT will be extremely disruptive, extremely fast: dispensing disinformation. The tool can't tell what information is true and what isn't, but it can generate boatloads of believable nonsense, making it a potent producer of political propaganda… The people who have been breaking our brains for years will be back with a vengeance next cycle, all but ensuring the internet will be teeming with AI-generated disinformation come November 2024.
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