I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in the recent past, everyone became a “strategist.”
I get up early in the morning to begin assembling News Items. I have two computer screens on my desk. One screen enables me to speed-read my way through 50–60 news sites and various overnight “news briefs.” The other screen is a live feed from Bloomberg TV.
Everybody on Bloomberg TV (meaning: the guests) is a “strategist.” They might be a “wealth management strategist,” or a “Euro markets equities strategist,” or an “emerging markets credit strategist,” they might be any number of things, but they are all “strategists.”
We’re-All-Strategists-Now-Syndrome (WASNS) has affected the political world as well. People who did polling used to be called “pollsters.” People who handled media advertising used to be called “media consultants.” People who oversaw fund-raising used to be called “fund-raisers.” Now they’re all “strategists.”
One reason that so much of political journalism is more or less the same is that reporters, under panic-inducing 24/7 Internet deadlines, only have time to talk to “strategists” (or read their Twitter feeds or the Twitter feeds of other people in the larger political community, most of whom talk politics with “strategists”).
All of which begets what used to be called “conventional wisdom.” It’s now called “the narrative.”
The narrative neatly captures the practice of modern politics. If things are going badly for Candidate A or Elected Official B, the “narrative” has to be “changed.” Sometimes the “narrative” needs a “reset” or be “level-set.” Sometimes, this or that candidate or elected official must “pivot” to a new narrative. If the “narrative” is inarguably bad, the things or thing that made it bad need to be “walked back.”
So we have strategists talking narratives with reporters. And this is what they are telling us about the 2024 GOP presidential nomination race.
- Trump is diminished. Not doomed, but diminished.
2. DeSantis is a formidable challenger.
3. We want DeSantis (or someone other than Trump) to win. We don’t like Trump. (No one says this out loud. Everyone knows it’s everyone else’s thought bubble).
4. In a multi-candidate field, Trump will be hard to beat. His “base” among GOP primary voters and caucus-attenders is probably 30%-40%, depending on the state. If the not-Trump vote gets divided three or four or five ways, Trump wins. And winner takes all.
5. In a two-way race, Trump is in trouble, since there is a sizable percentage of the GOP primary and caucus electorates who prefer he be gone. They may not like DeSantis (or whomever) all that much. But they will happily vote for him or her if it means the end of Trump.
6. In order to run for president, you need to run for president. That means you have to campaign, raise money, get your messages together, put your policy ideas on display, hire professionals to help you manage the enterprise, on and on. One thing that’s weird about this time around is that everyone is talking about running for president, but no one (save Trump) is running for president. (Needless to say, Trump’s campaign is being widely panned). They’re “exploring” a run for the nomination, “keeping their powder dry,” “testing the waters,” “sounding out donors,” etc. It’s getting a bit late in the day for exploration.
7. According to the strategists, a presidential run requires a “lane” to run in. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren vied to be the candidate of the “left lane” in the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination campaign. Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg both sought to “own” the “middle lane.” This time around, on the GOP side, there are 3 “lanes” (so far). Lane One is MAGA. Lane Two is MAGA minus Trump. Lane Three is the traditional conservative Republican (Reagan-Bush-Dole-GW Bush-McCain-Romney-Jeb Bush) lane.
8. At the moment Lane One (obviously) is occupied by Mr. Trump. Lane Two is occupied by Gov. DeSantis. Lane Three is unoccupied, or (more accurate) occupied somewhat by many, on paper.
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And maybe that’s the way it is. Maybe the strategists are right. Maybe the 2024 GOP presidential nomination campaign narrative writes itself accordingly. But you have to wonder: Is that all there is?
What’s missing — what’s glaringly absent — is hope. What’s also missing is hope’s sister: optimism. What’s most prominent is grievance. What’s being called upon is anger. That creates a lane; an open lane.
Political professionals will tell you that there’s no market for hope and optimism. Really? Clinton won on hope (he came from “a place called Hope,” no less). Obama ran on “hope and change.” Bobby Kennedy’s best line was “I think we can do better.” Reagan was the champion of hope (the sunny optimist with his eye upon that “shining city on a hill”). “Our best days are in front of us” is a powerful message, one that resonates because people want it to be true.
And there are plenty of reasons why that message is (or can be) true. Advances in medical science are making possible the future eradication of all kinds of diseases. Advances in neuroscience are getting closer to restoring dignity to old age. Early onset dementia may soon come later and eventually, not at all. Advances in genomics promise better, more nutritious food, elimination of genetic disease, even new sources of energy.
Advanced technologies already make our lives vastly more convenient and efficient. They may (and almost certainly will) lead to limitless and inexpensive energy, global connectivity, a better environment, extraordinary advances in education, individual access to all human knowledge. The next generation of ChatGPT will explain virtually anything you need to know in simple, understandable terms, on demand.
How we get there — how we unlock and unleash this enormous potential — is a much more powerful campaign message than, say, the future of transgender bathrooms. It reorients people toward that shining city on a hill. No one wants to think they’re doomed.
If nothing else, a “hope and optimism” campaign would stand out. It would separate its messenger from the others. It would attract new voters and independents (where possible) into GOP primaries. It would resonate with younger voters, whose distaste for Republicans appears to be growing with each passing year.
This from Brookings:
Among the youngest Americans, Democrats have held an advantage in votes for House of Representatives candidates in every midterm or presidential election since the late 1990s. Yet in 2022, the 18- to 29-year-old age group (made up of Gen Z and the youngest millennials) showed an even more pronounced shift toward Democrats. It is one of the few demographic groups to show a higher D-R margin in the nationwide House vote than for the 2020 presidential election (D-R value of 28 in 2022, compared to 24 in 2020). This is amplified by the fact that this age group — as in the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential election — registered a rise in turnout compared to pre-2018 elections, according to a Tufts University analysis.
Especially important to this youth vote is the contribution of young women. Prior to last week’s election, there was much speculation about how the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade would affect women’s voting patterns. The new exit polls show that 47% of female voters felt angry about that decision, and 83% of those women voted for a Democratic candidate.
Furthermore, the D-R vote margin for 18- to 29-year-old women was 46 — higher than the margin of 35 in the 2020 presidential election. The D-R vote margin for women ages 30 to 44 was also greater than it was in 2020.
It is worth noting that while men overall voted Republican, men ages 18 to 29 showed a positive D-R margin of 12. Among voters over age 45, both men and women were less likely to vote Democratic in 2022 than in 2020. Thus, a good part of the women’s vote for Democrats was accentuated by young people.
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It cannot be lost on anyone that Republicans have lost the popular vote in every presidential election of the last 30 years, save 2004, when George W. Bush was re-elected with 50.7 percent of the vote. Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 7 million votes in 2020. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 2.8 million votes in 2016. There are only so many times a political party can run the table in the Electoral College. Denying defeat in the Electoral College isn’t a strategy. It’s a fantasy.
Maybe the way forward for a Republican presidential election campaign isn’t about changing or occupying lanes, or resetting the narrative. Maybe it’s about changing the subject and describing how we get back on the road to a more perfect union.