History in the Making.

John Ellis
10 min readJun 16, 2022

1. Blame the historians.

This from Axios, dateline 24 March 2021:

President Biden recently held an undisclosed East Room session with historians that included discussion of how big is too big — and how fast is too fast — to jam through once-in-a-lifetime historic changes to America.

Why it matters … The historians’ views were very much in sync with his own: It is time to go even bigger and faster than anyone expected. If that means chucking the filibuster and bipartisanship, so be it.

Four things are pushing Biden to jam through what could amount to a $5 trillion-plus overhaul of America, and vast changes to voting, immigration and inequality.

  • He has full party control of Congress, and a short window to go big.
  • He has party activists egging him on.
  • He has strong gathering economic winds at his back.
  • And he’s popular in polls.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss told Axios FDR and LBJ may turn out to be the past century’s closest analogues for the Biden era, “in terms of transforming the country in important ways in a short time.”

Beschloss said the parallels include the New Deal economic relief that Franklin Roosevelt brought in 1933, which saved the country from the Depression and chaos.

And Biden is on track to leave the country in a different place, as Lyndon Johnson did with his Great Society programs.

People close to Biden tell us he’s feeling bullish on what he can accomplish, and is fully prepared to support the dashing of the Senate’s filibuster rule to allow Democrats to pass voting rights and other trophy legislation for his party.

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It’s time to go bigger and faster than anyone expected.”

That has to be the most fantastic mis-reading of an election result in….decades, at least. At the outset of the Biden presidency, I would guess that two-thirds of the American electorate had zero interest in any plan to “go bigger and father than anyone expected.” The whole idea of Biden was that he would not go bigger or farther than we expected. The idea was that he would calm things down, give the nation a break from the maelstrom of the Trump years. No one voted for revolution or reinvention or reincarnation, for that matter.

And yet………eminent historians gathered at the White House and told Biden that the time had come to “go big or go home.”

I suppose you can’t entirely blame the historians, since the point of a White House political operation, first and foremost, is to protect the franchise from making big mistakes. Any sentient political operation would have seen, immediately, that “go big” was doomed from the start.

They didn’t have the votes, either from the 2020 general election itself (Biden won the states that enabled him to prevail in the Electoral College by the narrowest of margins) or in Congress (the Senate was split 50–50 and the GOP gained seats in the House races in 2020). Down ballot, Republicans ran the table in 2020.

The GOP lost the presidency and control of the Senate for three reasons: (1) the Trump campaign was horribly mismanaged (it nearly ran out of money in October), (2) Trump himself went out of his way to alienate huge swaths of the electorate (women especially), and (3) the Georgia special US Senate elections featured two awful GOP candidates running two awful campaigns. If you create the conditions for defeat, you will be defeated.

The Biden Administration hung by an electoral thread on day one. There was no mandate to “go big or go home.” But somehow, in the space of two months, both the historians and the Biden political operation and much of the national press corps had conjured up “the next FDR” creating a “New Deal 2.0” that would “remake America.”

Aye-Yai-Yai. It’s no wonder that more than half the country has written off the Biden Administration as a hopeless case.

Still, I blame the historians. They should have known better. The most basic rule of American politics is you can only go as far as the electorate will let you go. You need permission to go further, which requires persuasion. Voters never gave Biden permission to “go big,” in the primaries or the general election or the precursor run-off elections in Georgia in January of 2021. Nor was he particularly persuasive as to why it was necessary.

Biden was elected as a moderate to be a moderate. That was his mandate. Imagining that he was elected to do great big things was delusional.

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2. “The shadow race is underway for the Republican presidential nomination.” That’s the headline from a Washington Post report this past weekend on the activities of a dozen or so Republican hopefuls in what used to be called “the exploratory phase” of a presidential campaign.

Each imagines there’s a path to the prize, despite former president Trump’s huge lead in fund-raising, political support, early and key state polling and his dominance of conservative/right wing media. The consensus seems to be that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has the best chance of dislodging Trump, although the evidence for that seems more wistful than persuasive.

The evidence for Trump steamrolling through any and all of his competition in the 2024 primaries and caucuses is substantial. Just to pick one number, among Republican primary voters in Pennsylvania, he enjoys an approval rating of 68 percent. I can’t think of a state where his approval rating among GOP primary voters is below 55 percent.

I like Ted Cruz as much as the next guy (which is to say: not at all), but he’s not going to dislodge Trump in Pennsylvania any time until the end of time. Nor are any of the others, unless one of them can figure out a way that enables “the base” to abandon Trump without feeling bad about abandoning him. Trump’s greatest strength with “the base” is that the people who comprise it believe he is loyal (and responsive) to them. That commands their respect and loyalty in return.

There are three arguments that one might make to convince GOP presidential primary (and caucus-attending) voters that Trump is not the “right” standard-bearer for the 2024 campaign.

The first is pragmatic: Trump is a proven loser. This is the preferred argument of what one might call “Murdochia,” meaning The Wall Street Journal and New York Post editorial pages. Both argue that Trump cost the GOP control of the House of Representatives (2018), the presidency (2020) and control of the Senate (2021 in Georgia). Why risk another defeat, their argument goes, when Trump might lose again and cause collateral damage “down ballot?”

The strength of this argument is that it is factual. Republicans did indeed lose control of the House, the presidency and control of the Senate during Trump’s presidency. It is also true that “the base” does not like to be aligned with “losers.”

(Trump is very touchy on this subject. I’ve long believed that Trump’s insistence that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from him was a preemptive rebuttal to the fact of his and his party’s defeats. He dared not let “the loser” narrative take hold, since in many ways (and in his mind) “winning” was the cornerstone of his “brand.” Everyone else was a loser. He was a winner. Ergo: Stop the Steal).

The problem with the Trump-is-a-loser-and-losers-lose argument is that a majority of Republican primary voters and caucus-attenders agree with Trump that the election was stolen. Anyone who disagrees with him or them on that point is probably a RINO, a fake news purveyor or a Deep State degenerate. That effectively renders Mr. Murdoch’s editorial writers irrelevant. They can opine all they want, but nothing they say is going to change the “facts on the ground” (so to speak). And no GOP presidential candidate is going to even think about calling Trump a “loser.”

So: argument-number-one is a non-starter.

Argument-number-two isn’t an argument, it’s a bet. The bet is that Trump will get crazier and crazier as time marches on, perhaps to the point where he insists that he won the 2020 presidential election in a gigantic landslide, not a mere landslide. This is (not literally, but close enough) the Mitch McConnell bet. Sen. McConnell and others like him are betting that Trump will slowly unravel, demand for someone or something else will slowly build and at some point in 2023 the lines will cross. When that happens, the GOP’s intra-party politics will adjust accordingly and Trump, slowly but surely, will be marginalized.

Alas, if that is going to happen it probably would have happened, or begun to happen, already. It’s not like Trump has been drowning in good press. He’s been “de-platformed” by Twitter, which served as his personal communications network throughout his presidency. He’s been (and continues to be) the focus of any number of lawsuits and criminal inquiries. And the more we learn about his conduct in the days leading up to and on the day of January 6, 2021 (and the days after), the more disgraceful and irresponsible it seems. Any “normal” politician, faced with these headwinds, would have long since fled to the Cayman Islands, or Argentina or Fiji.

Trump hasn’t moved an inch. His approval rating among GOP primary voters and caucus-attenders hasn’t really budged either. The more his enemies and opponents try to kill him, the more stalwart he becomes. “Marginalization” isn’t happening.

Argument-number-three is that it’s time to “move on.” This is tricky, since Trump’s response will likely be “if you’re so interested in ‘moving on,’ why don’t you move to Mexico.” The “move on” rationale has to be very carefully crafted.

Happily enough, there’s a playbook for it. It’s called “the gold watch strategy,” which calls for the challenger(s) to “retire” the “incumbent” with deep gratitude for and lavish appreciation of the incumbent’s remarkable achievements and dedicated service. You can hear the gold watch ceremony speech: “But now, the time has come to build on those accomplishments, stand on those broad shoulders, so that we can make his vision for a Greater America a reality. It’s the duty of the next generation of leaders to build upon the solid foundation we inherit from the prior generation. No one has ever left a more solid foundation than Donald J. Trump.”

This has potential. Trump will see right through it, of course, and call it out for what it is: treason. But Republican primary voters and caucus attenders, especially in the wake of the January 6 Committee hearings, might give it a fair hearing. Regardless of what anyone (“the base” or “traditional Republicans” or GOP officials, donors and operatives) think of the committee hearings themselves, everyone agrees that the events of January 6 are, politically speaking, best forgotten.

Trump, of course, is a daily reminder of those events. Most recently, he described them as follows: “….January 6th was not simply a protest, it represented the greatest movement in the history of our Country to Make America Great Again.”

This is not the kind of message you want to take to persuadable voters. Sadly for the Republican Party, it’s the kind of message that Trump’s more militant supporters embrace. So Trump will repeat it, again and again. As we get closer and closer to the primaries, and GOP primary voters start to pay closer attention to the candidates (and, as important, the candidates’ chances of winning in the fall), rhetoric about the greatness of a riot may seem more and more like excess general election baggage.

Trump is already a heavy load, baggage-wise. He constantly alienates female voters. He makes Democrats more competitive, up and down the ballot, because he cranks up Democratic turnout, exponentially increases Democratic fund-raising and, perhaps most important, shuts down Democratic Party infighting. On top of that, he will make the 2024 election all about him, because that’s what he does with everything. A referendum on Trump is, at this point, the only national election the Democrats could possibly win.

So, if there’s a way to deploy the “gold watch” without causing a ferocious backlash, then argument-number-three is the GOP’s best hope.

There is the possibility that Trump will decide, in the end, not to run. The chances of Trump not running for the 2024 GOP nomination strike me as slim and none. But there are those who think he might prefer the role of king-maker and, perhaps more to the point, not risk the ignominy of a second defeat.

Should Trump decide to run, he will be very hard to beat. An attack from the left has no chance. A “traditional” Republican challenge also has no chance. Mitt Romney Republicans no longer have the numbers to nominate a Mitt Romney. Challenging Trump from the right is a non-starter. Trump is the undisputed leader of right wing America.

And right wing media will play along, because they must. All those platforms — talk radio, Fox News, right-wing websites and chat rooms — live and die by ratings and “clicks.” It’s what they really care about. No one at the top of the Fox Corporation believes for one minute that the election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. But they indulge (and sometimes promote) Trump’s fantasy because he rates. He moves the Nielsen meters north.

Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch thought Trump was a buffoon until they saw the ratings from his announcement speech in 2015. They then realized they were looking at a gold mine. They didn’t look back. The Fox News Channel became, over time, Trump TV, because it rated.

Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rick Scott, Ron DeSantis, Tom Cotton don’t rate. They’re flat-liners, meaning they sort of hold the audience but they don’t increase it. That being the case, and it is the case, Fox News and talk radio and right wing digital outlets must pay homage to Trump and never cross him. They need his numbers. Only the audience can marginalize him. They show no inclination to do so.

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John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.