Sunday, June 4, 2023

BTRTN: Biden Tames Two Big Issues While the GOP Field Widens

Tom is back with a combination of the May 2023 BTRTN Month in Review and a 2024 Campaign Update 

MAY 2024

One month ago, Joe Biden knew he would face two major issues in the month of May and either could make or break his presidency.  There would be no hiding in the White House while Donald Trump dominated the headlines.  Biden’s own choices and decisions would make headlines, and he would have to live with them.

The first was the need to raise the debt ceiling.  Biden’s public approach had been to declare, time and again, that he would not negotiate with Congress on the matter, that only a “clean” bill to raise the limit was acceptable.  The other was immigration, where Biden was about to face the music for allowing Title 42 -- a Trump Era measure that used the pandemic as a means of limiting immigration -- to elapse.  The lifting of Title 42 was expected to result in a flood of migrants across the southern border.

Biden, ever the deal man, quickly abandoned his non-negotiation pose to resolve the debt ceiling issue.  While maintaining the fig leaf fiction that he was negotiating on the budget rather than on raising the debt ceiling per se, he nevertheless engaged House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (the point person on this issue given GOP control of the House) and began discussions in earnest.  He and his designated team proceeded with virtually non-stop negotiations, save for a few “pauses” for political effect, even cutting short a G-7 meeting to resume them in person.  What has emerged is a deal that has outraged the far right and disappointed the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but was passed handily by a coalition of more centrist Democrats and less-crazed Republicans in both the House and the Senate.

The GOP scored some points, freezing non-defense discretionary spending for two years, clawing back some unspent Covid funds, a slight reduction from the $80 billion Biden had secured in his Inflation Reduction Act to invest in more IRS agents, and a few other concessions.  But Biden could rightly claim that none of these concessions were particularly painful, save perhaps the most controversial one, his greenlighting of the Mountain Valley Pipeline project, long a favorite of Joe Manchin’s, which enraged environmentalists.  When all was said and done, though, perhaps the most important provision was the length of the deal; the debt ceiling would not become an issue until 2025, thus ensuring no further debt ceiling disruptions until after the 2024 election.

The agreement was widely viewed as a Biden victory.  The outrage from the right was clearly more intense than that of the left, and, more quantifiably, House Democrats outnumbered House Republicans in passing the bill.  But McCarthy managed a win as well. He had unified the right enough to secure House passage of a GOP budget blueprint, something his immediate predecessors had never managed to do in similar talks.  More to the point, it was a win for him because, despite the sputtering rage from various Freedom Caucus members, his job looks safe.  Thus he managed to successfully navigate the key test that was going to determine whether his Speakership would become a quiet footnote in history, noted alongside William Henry Harrison, Liz Truss, Urban VII and others who achieved a dubious but enduring fame by virtue of their exceedingly short tenures.

Title 42 confuses most Americans.  It was a Trump response to the Covid crisis, enacted in March, 2020, designed to use the health crisis as a means of denying immigrant access to the opportunity for asylum in the U.S.  It actually refers to Title 42 of a 1944 public health law which specifically allowed such restrictions to be put in place in the event of a health crisis.  Biden had initially tried to rescind the Title 42 restriction, but was thwarted by a Federal judge who kept it in place.  But with the official declaration by the Biden Administration that the Covid crisis was, in effect, over (that is, no longer a “crisis”), the pretext underpinning the use of Title 42 was removed.

This became fodder for the GOP on an issue on which Biden is vulnerable; he has been pummeled by both the right and the left for his often unclear immigration policies.  Knowing that immigration spikes make for terrific visuals in Biden attacks, and clear “evidence” that Biden has “open borders” and is soft on immigration, the GOP gleefully awaited the expected surge when Title 42 was due to lapse on May 11.  But that surge never came.  In fact, border encounters dropped to roughly 4,000 per day since Title 42 elapsed, a major decline from the recent norm of over 10,000.

Why the decline?  Essentially, under Title 42, migrants could be deported without an asylum hearing, but since there were no penalties, many migrants simply kept trying again and again.  Now, under Title 9 (which had been superseded by Title 42), they will face the threat of criminal prosecution if they are caught twice, providing a very real disincentive to multiple attempts, a reality that is apparently widely understood within the migrant community.

With the sharp reduction of migrant crossings, the immigration issue almost immediately disappeared from the headlines, at least for now.

One of the casualties of this era of polarization is the lack of a sense of accomplishment.  The stakes are perceived as so high, and the needs of the country so great, that traditional political victories – invariably compromises -- are viewed as half-a-loaf, if that.  The debt ceiling and immigration wins are short of the ideal “solution” on each issue, which would be the outright elimination of any debt ceiling requirement and the passage of true immigration reform.  But both are politically impossible in this environment.

Biden has achieved the best legislative record of any president since LBJ -- even if he passes nothing else in an eight-year presidency -- but the left remains disappointed.  They measure him more by his failure to achieve breakthroughs on, say, voting rights or true immigration reform, which would have required a filibuster modification or elimination, for which the votes simply do not exist, even within Biden’s own party.  They measure the debt ceiling deal more by what was conceded than by what was avoided (a global economic meltdown, and an economic crisis that would surely be blamed on Biden), and immigration is still a heartbreaking and wildly misunderstood issue that is weaponized by the right with massive disinformation.

Thus Biden has handled two of his most vexing challenges with typical dexterity, yet his own party remains disappointed.  It is remarkable that many Democrats are looking for an alternative, bemoaning his age, rather than assessing the degree of his accomplishment in a time when he barely afford to lose a single vote in his own party in the Senate, and must find a few votes  the other side to pass anything in the House.  He has also tested the limits of executive action and faced adverse verdicts from the courts.  His detractors see his unmistakable physical decline and somehow connect it to his inability to part the Red Sea and turn water into wine.  And thus he is vulnerable in 2024, even as every GOP candidate offers a very stark conservative worldview as the alternative.


There are many counterintuitive elements that characterize the quest for the GOP 2024 presidential nomination.  The most obvious example is that nothing juices the Trump campaign more than a criminal indictment of the candidate.  Indictments (for more are surely to come) fuel Trump’s grievance-based campaign, whip the Trumpsters into a frenzy and unleash a torrent of small dollar donations.  Since there were no further indictments forthcoming in May, Trump himself was relatively invisible, at least in the headlines.

But another counterintuitive force played into his favor in May, and that was the expansion of the GOP field.  Initially, Trump viewed such challenges as the ultimate act of disloyalty, and sought to discourage them.  But he now recognizes that a larger field fragments the “Not Trump” lane, lessening the chances for any single candidate to claim the critical mass of supporters required to defeat Trump, at least in the early primaries.  And so the greater the number of candidates vying to replace him at the head of the party, the less likely any one of them will.  Imagine a football team trying to score a touchdown with all eleven players fighting over who will carry the ball instead of agreeing that ten of them must block for a chosen one.  That is the GOP.  They know the goal, they just can’t get seem to get there.  

Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, conservative talk show host Larry Elder and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis formally declared their candidacies in May, joining Trump, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy in the GOP field.  Within the next week, Mike Pence, Chris Christie and former North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum are widely expected to enter, bringing the field to ten, and it may not end there.  Governors Glenn Youngkin (Virginia) and Chris Sununu (New Hampshire) are said to be still mulling, and perhaps others as well.

Within this group of Trump challengers there is an interesting split between those who align themselves with Trump, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, or claim to be an untainted successor, and those deliberately choose to attack him at will on the merits.  This latter group for certain consists, for now, of only Hutchinson and Christie.  Most of the others are focusing their fire on DeSantis, on the theory that Job One is not to catch Trump, but to establish themselves as the New Lead Challenger, a mantle DeSantis still holds.  Tim Scott is essentially running a “positive” campaign on the merits of his own candidacy.  How novel, yet how consistent with the view that he is largely running for VP.

DeSantis, for his part, continues to gaffe away that status, even without the help of others.  Initially it was his comments on Ukraine (a “border conflict”), his weird battle with Disney (over corporate antipathy to the so-called Florida “Don’t Say Gay” laws), and his post-six-weeks abortion ban.  Each was a deliberate attempt to forge credentials to the far right of Trump, yet collectively they spooked donors and some GOP voters desperately seeking a Trump alternative who could actually win a general election. 

In May, DeSantis managed to take one of  the most high-profile platforms granted to candidates, his launch announcement, and deliver unto himself yet another self-inflicted wound.  It was a questionable enough decision to forego traditional media and embrace Elon Musk, of all people, by choosing Twitter Space as his launch platform for an audio only announcement (and discussion with the billionaire).  But the glitch-filled execution was downright embarrassing and stuck a knife right through DeSantis’s competence-based candidacy.  Pundits were quick to pounce, but also quick to say the fiasco would be forgotten in a week.  It certainly was not a fatal blow, but nevertheless the waste of a giant opportunity to “reset” his moribund campaign. (On a lesser scale, people are also starting to notice that DeSantis varies the pronunciation of his own last name, veering back and forth between “Dee”- and “Deh”- Santis.  Yikes.  We thought that sort of thing was reserved for George Santos.)

What remains to be seen is exactly how tough DeSantis (whether “Dee” or “Deh”) chooses to be on Trump.  It is hard to imagine DeSantis closing a 30-point gap (see the chart below) by softening his critiques through indirect references.  On the other hand, it is equally hard to imagine DeSantis winning the general election without the Trump faithful energized behind him -- and bashing their idol will instead only antagonize them, likely irredeemably.  Trump will surely not endorse DeSantis at the end of a bloodbath.  Hence the dilemma DeSantis has been confronting from the outset of his aspirations, but now the time has come for him to decide which path to take.

As for the Democrats, Joe Biden is not being seriously challenged within his party.  This despite his precarious standing among Democrats, which are largely driven by concerns with his age and a decided lack of enthusiasm for him among young voters and progressives.  The only other announced candidates are 2020 also-ran Marianne Williamson and anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, and no one else appears to be considering a Biden challenge.

With the field starting to take shape, we will gradually move from a focus on national polls to what will soon become the only polls that will matter, those in Iowa and New Hampshire.  The early polls in those states have Trump ahead generally by a lesser margin than the national one, but there are as yet very few polls in those states, and they vary considerably.  We’ll start reporting on them when there is a critical mass to aggregate.  But for now, we note that the national numbers are unmoved from a month ago, and Trump maintains that 30-point lead over DeSantis, with the rest of the field barely registering.


Biden's approval rating dropped two points in May, but his standing on individual issues remained virtually the same.  The "Bidenometer" was also nearly unchanged.  Trump maintained his 30-point-plus lead in the GOP polls over DeSantis.

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