Thursday, August 24, 2023

BTRTN: You Want the Truth, Republicans? Debate Proves You Can’t Handle the Truth.

Despite their differences in background, philosophy, and style, the eight candidates who took the stage in Milwaukee last night have one important thing in common. None of them are going to be elected President of United States in 2024.


The Republican debate in Milwaukee last night was surprisingly raucous, but in a strange, puzzling, and utterly illogical way.

Conventional wisdom is that the front runner in a campaign is the one who draws the most attacks. It’s just common sense: if you are behind, you have to take down the person in the lead. Everyone takes shots at the leader, right?

Well, if you believe that common sense wisdom and watched the debate, you would have concluded that a wide-eyed whack job named Vivek Ramaswamy was far and away the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. Ramaswamy, who comes off like a glib, spoiled college freshman super-pumped for pledge week, was pummeled from every corner of the stage. He was rightly savaged by Nikky Haley for his vintage Neville Chamberlain foreign policy views. Mike Pence repeatedly castigated him as an amateur and a lightweight. Christie and Pence ripped into him for his promise to pardon Trump.

But, uh, no.  Vivek Ramaswamy did not go into this debate as the front-runner, not by some 30 to 40 points in the polls. He was the easy target, not the right target.

Donald Trump is the guy who actually is up by some 30 to 40 points in the polls, and he was, of course, nowhere near the stage for the first debate of the 2024 Republican Primary season on Wednesday night in Milwaukee. But only one person on the stage took him on, and Chris Christie was literally drowned out by a booing crowd for doing so.

Just as crazy: in the absence of Trump, the next logical target of attacks should have been the person with the highest polling numbers who was actually on the stage – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. He, however, was virtually ignored by his competitors. It was a bad night for Meatball Ron.

So the headline for the first Republican debate is that it was an evening of sound and fury, signifying nothing. You may see polling numbers go up for Pence, Haley, and Christie – perhaps two points, maybe three. Ramaswamy probably scared Republicans with his constant wildly goofy grin and his raving theories about why the United States should abandon Ukraine and Taiwan, and he will lose a few points. DeSantis, grumpy and largely irrelevant, may lose ground, too.

But the only thing that the first Republican debate proved is that Donald Trump can win this nomination by literally doing nothing.

Absolutely nothing that happened last night will loosen the hammerlock Trump has on some 35 to 40% of Republicans, who didn’t abandon Trump when he tried to shoot democracy on Fifth Avenue.  Nothing changed last night except the locations of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Perhaps one of these candidates will end up getting a gig on FOX, or else the evening was a completely unproductive waste of time.

The bet here is that Donald Trump’s polling numbers do not move a micron as a result of last night’s debate. And that means the evening was a huge win for Donald Trump.

It was, indeed, a tale told by idiots who think they are going to overtake Donald Trump by beating up Vivek Ramaswamy.

Pundits will eagerly point out that Mike Pence performed very well in the debate. He did: Mike Pence looked Presidential, which is pretty cool for a guy who was actually Vice President for four years and never once looked Presidential then. He spoke with gravitas and power, and delivered some of the evening’s most memorable lines. Pence seemed to enjoy toying with the nutty Ramaswamy, referring to him disdainfully as a “rookie.” And, yes, Pence did say that Donald Trump had instructed him to not follow the Constitution. It is remarkable that we need to praise him for that.

But every second that Mike Pence wasted on trashing Ramaswamy was a missed opportunity to ask his party to rethink their death-grip embrace of Donald Trump.

Nikki Haley was razor sharp. She came out of the gate saying that “no one is telling the truth,” and proceeded to jar the audience by acknowledging that a Republican administration had contributed heavily to the surging national debt. Haley deftly navigated the fractious issue of abortion bans with a plea that Republicans stop demonizing the issue, and advocating positions that are reasoned compromises. Haley skillfully trashed every rival on the stage by invoking Margaret Thatcher’s famous observation that “if you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”

But, like Pence, Haley did not take her exhortation to tell the truth to its logical conclusion and go after Donald Trump. She, too, saved her harshest and loudest condemnation for Ramaswamy when she savaged his proposed appeasement of Putin in Ukraine. “You have no experience in foreign policy, and it shows.” Zing!

Only Chris Christie stood up and said that “regardless of what you think about the legality of Trump’s actions,” someone had to “stop normalizing the conduct.” He went on to say that Trump’s “conduct is beneath the level of the office.”

Chris Christie may have a noble intent, but he happens to be a terrible messenger. In a new Des Moines Register/NBC News/ Mediacom Iowa poll published Monday, Christie has a mind-blowing 60% “unfavorable” rating. That’s probably a higher number than the Ken dolls in the “Barbie” movie.

And yet Christie forged ahead in a mission that is either full-on kamikaze or the only strategy with the slightest chance of actually taking down Trump.

He did land a few hard punches, but with Trump nowhere to be seen, the impact of those zingers was neutralized.

His reward for calling out Trump’s behavior as “beneath the level of the office” -- a simple recitation of reality – was that the Republicans in the hall showered Christie with catcalls and boos. The boos rose to a decibel level where Christie was drowned out. FOX moderator Brett Baier made the extraordinary gesture of turning and admonishing the audience.

But that moment is really all you need to know about today’s Republican Party. Chris Christie was making a fair and, in fact, wildly understated point: that Trump’s conduct is beneath the dignity of the office.

But today’s Republican Party cannot handle the truth.

And most of the Republican Party Presidential aspirants are afraid to take Trump on. They, too, cannot accept that they must take Trump down in order to allow the party to move on from him. They cannot handle the truth.

And poor Chris Christie… he seems to genuinely believe that if Republicans really, finally, totally, and emphatically got the facts, they would dump Trump and follow the truthteller. Newsflash, Chris: Today’s Republican Party can’t handle the truth.

The Republicans on the stage last night let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers. Donald Trump was not there to defend himself. The first debate often has among the highest ratings of the entire campaign cycle. The first debate gives the anonymous a chance to make a name, it gives those with weak showings to date a chance for a re-set. It is solid gold for those who have the guts to seize the moment.

But no one seized the moment.

The bottom line: none of the candidates on the stage did much to change the ingoing mojo. And that is bad news for a party that is hurtling toward nominating a four-times indicted, twice impeached, twice defeated in the popular vote, and soundly humiliated in the 2020 and 2022 election cycles as their Presidential candidate for the third time in a row. It is a party hell-bent on ignoring Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity.

With Pence, Haley, and Christie as the stand-outs, who lost ground?

Clearly Vivek Ramaswamy had a bruising night, but the 38-year-old tech entrepreneur did not have that much to lose. It’s not like he made any terrible gaffes or errors – he simply clearly articulated terrible policies. Ramaswamy has been characterized as the supposed Republican answer to Pete Buttigieg: he was billed as a young, telegenic, silkily imperturbable outsider who speaks in full paragraphs and artfully reframes questions to make his counter-intuitive arguments seem the only logical answer. Rivek, you are no Pete Buttigieg. Where Mayor Pete is cool, calm, and in command, Ramaswamy was hot, uncontrolled, rude, arrogant, and petulant.  Perhaps the people who are into his extreme rhetoric will stick with him. But he is destined to become an answer to a trivia question ranking the biggest Republican party flame-outs, probably somewhere between Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee.

But the biggest loser? Ron DeSantis.

Perhaps for more than any other candidate, the Milwaukee debate could be viewed as critically important to DeSantis, as his campaign has been flailing, failing, faltering, and fumbling pretty much since he announced his candidacy. In the months since he announced, DeSantis has actually lost ground to Trump during a period in which Trump was served with four indictments.

Worse: days before the debate, leaked documents from Ron DeSantis’ own super PAC showered him with advice about how to handle key questions and how to carry himself on the stage.  Taken in sum, the PAC’s input to DeSantis appeared to be saying, “you obviously have no clue how to behave as a candidate, so we have resorted to scripting you so you don’t blow it.”

DeSantis was urged by the Super PAC to defend the absent Trump on the one hand, signaling his weakness relative to Trump, and to viciously attack Vivek Ramaswamy, indicating that he feared being knocked out of the number two spot in the polls by a political novice.  A particularly bad sign for DeSantis: his own people felt a need to remind him to talk about his wife and children and – yes, this is a direct quote – “show emotion.” It is DeSantis’ problem in a nutshell: Chat GPT has more warmth and emotional intelligence than the Florida governor.

More than any other candidate, DeSantis repeatedly dodged giving direct answers to simple “yes or no” questions. At one point, Pence cowed DeSantis into admitting that Pence had made the right decision in not acceding to Donald Trump’s demands that he not attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Pence made DeSantis look weak.

One of the most effective techniques used by the Fox moderators was to request a show of hands – yes or no – on key issues. Baier used this technique to challenge the candidates “if Donald Trump is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as your party’s choice?” DeSantis raised his hand well after the others… making him appear a meek lemming following the crowd.

DeSantis had his moments, but the worst part of his night was the degree to which he was ignored. He appeared to be the gawky, awkward kid who isn’t picked for the touch football game, standing on the sidelines while the cool kids mixed it up. He was upstaged by the surprisingly aggressive Pence and Haley, and his range of expression was trapped in a narrow range from snide to sour to obnoxious to contemptuous, and consistently landed on odious. DeSantis seems to think that debating is an exercise in projectile testosterone, and appeared most comfortable when he had the chance to talk about the things he can kill, expel, or destroy as President. The man has never once learned the winning grace of self-deprecating humor.  Ron DeSantis is where warmth goes to die.

Tim Scott’s performance was lackluster and unmemorable. He was the most robotic performer, instantly defaulting to rote, scripted answers. While Pence, Ramaswamy, Haley, and Christie jumped into the fray of ferocious real-time arguments, Scott seemed to disappear into the background when the action got heated.  It may not be fair, but in televised debates, nice guys finish last.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, who scammed his way onto the debate stage by offering $20 gift cards in exchange for campaign contributions of any size, did nothing to create any semblance of energy or momentum. He seemed at times to be a man who had accidentally wandered onto the wrong tv set and was as puzzled as everyone else as to why he was there.

And poor Asa Hutchinson. The former Arkansas governor’s finest moment was when he refused to raise his hand when asked if he would vote for Trump if he was nominated and a convicted felon. Other than that, he may as well have been part of the background you created for your Zoom calls during Covid.

When the clock struck 10:00 Central Standard Time, the sound and the fury was over, and the tale told by idiots indeed signified nothing.

The, ah, real truth is that MAGA Republicans couldn’t care less what the truth may or may not be. It is irrelevant. MAGA Republicans are marching in goose-step lock-step to their leader's command. It remains a most exquisite irony that Donald Trump gained national fame as the host of a reality television show, because his greatest imprint to the national Republican Party is an utter inability to deal with reality.

As Jack Nicholson might put it, Republicans can’t handle the truth. The rank and file reject it, and the leaders are too cowardly to speak it.

As for Donald Trump: any debate he can avoid with impunity is a good move. When last seen on a debate stage in the 2020 election cycle, Trump horribly bungled the infamous “POTUS Interruptus” debate, displaying appalling rudeness as he shouted over Joe Biden and the moderators.

What we learned in Milwaukee last night is that the dense pack of closely-rated candidates pursuing Donald Trump is the reason Donald Trump will win the nomination. The overnight poll of winners and losers could show some small bumps for Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, and it could show a two or three-point decline for Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy.

Which is to say: this debate was small ball. Tiny shifts that don’t amount to much. No one emerged with the power to unify the party and take on Trump.

The top tier candidates all fear Donald Trump so much that none of them will swing for the fences to bring him down, and now they will point to Chris Christie’s failed charge of the light brigade to justify continuing their tepid, milquetoast, cowardly non-campaigns.

But one number is not going to change: the percentage of Republicans who support Donald Trump.

The truth?

Thanks to Donald Trump, Republicans can’t handle the truth.


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Sunday, August 6, 2023

BTRTN: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing -- Mike Lawler (R-NY17) Holds a Town Hall

Tom catches up with his U.S. Representative, a GOP rep in a high profile swing district.

For years we lived in New York's 18th district, a swing district that has been represented by Republicans and Democrats alike.  Often the race for that district was the most expensive congressional campaign in the country.  We were redistricted in 2022, and found ourselves in the 17th, which was clearly going to be a swing district as well in the November election.  

We had been represented in the 18th by Sean Patrick Maloney, once one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party, a man who was there at the start of Bill Clinton’s candidacy (working with Hillary in 1991), worked in the Clinton White House and, after being elected to Congress in 2012, rose to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).  In that role he was charged with working to ensure the election of Democrats to the House.  With that feather came a bulls-eye, and the GOP targeted him in 2022.  Maloney's residence had shifted to the 17th, so he decided to run for that seat, effectively forcing out Democratic incumbent Mondaire Jones.  He found himself in a dogfight with Mike Lawler, a smooth-talking, fence-straddling 36-year-old Republican, who rode the crime “issue” (like other Republicans in New York State) to an upset over Maloney, winning by less than 2,000 votes, out of more than 285,000 cast. 

Lawler came to my town for a Q&A session a few days ago and a friend of mine and I decided to go and see what he had to say.  He was there with a full retinue of staffers at our Town Hall billed as an 11 AM to 2 PM event.  He showed up at 12:40 PM to find a group of about 30 constituents waiting.  He offered both a “public” Q&A session and then some private time for those who had specific personal issues that they hoped the congressman could address. 

Over the next 100 minutes, Lawler proceeded to put on a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing performance to an audience that appeared to be largely leaning left – and was not buying his act.  It was perhaps a typical performance for a swing district representative, but highly unusual to watch in our polarized times.  He generally avoided any of the FOX News red meat that enrages the left, occasionally rebuked the worst of his GOP colleagues, and just as occasionally praised President Biden.  But he quite often spoke in unmistakable GOP code, using party line bullet points.  He smoothly bobbed and weaved by adopting an approach in which he rarely detailed his own views, except when pressed (hard), instead summarizing the positions of both sides and cluck-clucking about the need for compromise.  On the harder issues, he would consistently “pivot” to frame them on terms with which he was comfortable.  At times he cut off persistent questioners and talked over objections from the crowd, always seeking safer terrain and eliding over obvious logic (and data) gaps in his thought process. 

There were a number of articulate constituents from the left who dominated the proceedings.  There were also some clear Lawler supporters but they were quieter and voiced only a few concerns, which he handled on campaign autopilot.  He fared less well under the barrage of questions from the left.

·        On abortion.  He wrapped himself in his public opposition to a national abortion ban, and expressed the vanilla view that people had different ideas about when a proper cutoff might be, the need for (unspecified) exceptions, and refrained from presenting his own views.  He got into more trouble in his attempts to “both sides” the issue, saying that “extremists” on both the left and right were "over-emotionalizing" the issue, and he wished for more kumbaya.  This is wishy-washy poppycock; Lawler is clearly not bemoaning Dobbs.


·        On immigration.  Lawler again tried invoking the “both sides” nonsense.  He stated the obvious, that Democrats needed to accept tougher border security and Republicans needed to be more accommodating on DACA and the entire group of 11.5 million plus undocumented immigrants.  But when several constituents pointed out that the “Gang of Eight” crafted a bipartisan bill that did just that in 2013, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support, only to die in the GOP-controlled House, Lawler had no answer -- except to harken back to 2005 when George W. Bush attempted to pursue immigration reform, failing to mention that it was also the GOP that rejected Bush’s bill.  There is no "both sides" here -- except that many politicians on "both sides" agree with the Gang of Eight forumulation -- as only "one side" has walked away from this rational approach, twice.


·        On gun control.  Lawler was confronted directly on the issue of assault weapon bans, and he attempted to dodge the issue by reducing the conversation to a detailed discussion of specific categories of weapons (“you know, some handguns are automatic weapons”), refusing to engage on the concept of whether ordinary citizens should be allowed to carry weapons capable of mass killings in mere seconds.  He attempted to pivot to various “school safety” measures he endorsed (such as emergency buttons) and the old reliable GOP standby, flipping the issue from availability of guns to “mental health” concerns.  But the short answer, to be clear, is that, for all of his posturing, Mike Lawler is never going to vote for any ban on any class of weapons.


·        On the economy.  Lawler was asked about a negative statement he made about the state of the economy given all the recent positive news (3% inflation, 2.4% GDP growth, 3.6% unemployment with steady job growth, especially in manufacturing).  He rather oddly pivoted directly to the New York State economy, pointing to the state debt and the population “outmigration” trends.  When pressed, he conceded the national picture was better but said that we have a ways to go and some people were hurting.  No one would contest that assessment, which is always true on some level, but the national figures are, at this particular time, nearly as good as one could ever hope for. 


·        On Medicare and Social Security.  Once again Lawler simply stated the obvious – that he was opposed to any cuts in these programs but also that “something had to be done” to ensure their ultimate solvency.  He thus hoped to steer clear of the third rail, which is to specify exactly what should be done.  He did appear to be expressing tentative support for changing the eligibility age for these programs from 65 to 67, on a grandfathered basis for anyone now nearing 65.  But that, of course, is a “cut” by anyone’s definition, another needle that cannot be thread.


·        On crime.  When asked by a supporter Lawler went on a riff about the issue, but was challenged by a very well-versed constituent who cited statistic after statistic, fact after fact, that crime trends are actually on the decline.  But Lawler said he disagreed with that statement and those facts, and, when pressed to produce data to support his claims that crime was on the rise, promised to put such data on his website.  We’ll see.


·        On Ukraine.  Lawler might have surprised the righties with his unequivocal support of Ukraine and praise for the Biden Administration’s handling of it.  But he framed the issue by personalizing it, explaining that his wife emigrated from Moldova just over a decade ago, and still has family near the Ukraine border.  Perhaps he was hoping to win over his Democratic constituents with his Biden-backing while mollifying the Republicans who brought it up (in opposition) by giving a personal reason for his support.  Slick.


·        On Trump.  Perhaps the most definitive exchange took place over Trump.  The Lawler meeting took place the day after Trump was indicted for the third time, for conspiracies related to Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.  Lawler was asked what he felt about the indictment and he gravely stated that Trump “would have to answer for his actions.”  I asked Lawler directly, whether he would endorse Trump if he became the GOP nominee, and if he would vote for him.  He said he would not endorse Trump but equivocated on whether he would vote for him, demurring with the concept that there would be a choice.  He took this opportunity to diss Biden’s mental condition as well with a rather snide innuendo:  “I’ve talked to him.”  I’m not sure this anti-Trump stance was “breaking news” but Trump does not take kindly to any Republican who does not support him, and is impervious to swing district nuance.  We’ll see if Trump tries to find a far right Trumpster to primary Lawler. 

Not surprisingly, Lawler struck a very a different tone on the general topic of the Trump indictments when he was in front of a far more conservative audience, a FOX News panel:

Obviously, here Lawler is playing to the base, hewing to the GOP party line that the DOJ has been “weaponized.”  This was not a line he dared use with his North Castle constituents. 

Our swing district mirrors our polarized country.  On issues like the gun control, reproductive health rights and climate change, the district surely reflects what every national survey shows: that the vast majority of Americans are aligned with the Democratic Party in seeking to limit access to guns that enable mass killings, guarantee the right to make decisions over one’s own body, and enact legislation that will accelerate decarbonization.  Mike Lawler is not fighting for any of those things, although he pays lip service to them.  Sean Patrick Maloney was no progressive, but he was unmistakably not wishy-washy on matters that are near and dear to us – or on any issues, for that matter.  We knew where he stood.  At the end of the day, we who reside in NY-17 deserve representation that will fight for our majority views on these issues. 

The Democratic primary for a challenger to Lawler is taking shape.  Mondaire Jones is the biggest name in the field; the former congressman who was, in effect, redistricted out of his seat in 2022.  Liz Whitmer Gereghty,a school board member and sister of the Michigan Governor, has also joined the fray.  Another candidate, MaryAnn Carr, a member of another local town council, attended the Lawler Q&A and gently rebuked his claims at times, while passing her contact information around to various attendees.  While Democrats will take proper time and care to determine the best challenger to Lawler, we would do well to unite behind the primary winner in an all-out effort to regain this crucial seat.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

BTRTN: Does the Approval Rating Mean Anything Anymore?

Tom is back with the July, 2023 BTRTN Month in Review.

JULY 2023

Is it time to bury the Most Important Political Measure of them all, the almighty approval rating?

Once upon a time, say, from the Harry Truman presidency to that of George W. Bush, the approval rating reigned supreme.  Back then, it was a measure of, well, presidential approval.  Pollsters would ask a simple question of respondents, typically registered voters or those they deemed to be “likely” voters:  Do you approve or disapprove of the way [president's name] is handling his job as president?  Once the results were tabulated, voila, you understood, with exquisite clarity, the state of the presidency and all that that implied.  You knew precisely how much political capital a president had to spend – the higher the rating, the more leverage.  You could reasonably calculate his odds of re-election.  You could even wager an educated guess on where he would stack up in the annals of history, whether in the pantheon (“John F. Kennedy remains the only president to never once sink below a 50% approval rating!”) or in the scrapheap (“Donald J. Trump is the only president to never once achieve a 50% approval rating!”).  Back then, when Americans were asked the question, no matter which party, they would pretty much answer the question as asked – how is this particular president doing?

That meant that, over the course of a presidency, there was considerable variation in a president’s approval rating, from week to week, month to month and year to year.  The rating was generally linked to real time events (like 9/11) and new data points (like key economic indicators), and subject to dramatic change if the president was believed to have handled them well or poorly, or caused them to change for better or worse.  Americans could unite – more or less as one -- around George W. Bush’s galvanizing call to action from the ruins of the Twin Towers, and reward him with a 90% approval rating, or collectively castigate the darkest moments rendered by Truman, Nixon, Carter and, yes, Bush as well, and deliver the damning verdict of a rating in the 20’s.  The ratings were not devoid of partisanship, of course, but neither were they beholden to the tribe.

Those days are gone.  The approval rating, like the Supreme Court, Higher Ed, Bud Light, and virtually every other facet of American life, has itself become politicized, robbed of meaning by the radical polarization that has resulted in everyone taking sides on every aspect of life.  Donald Trump, who did more to accelerate polarization than anyone, giving voice to previously unacceptable social views, saw his rating fluctuate between 48% and 34% in his four years.  In a time when Trump upended – or shattered -- almost every political norm there was, nothing he did could drive his approval rating outside that very narrow band.  And now Joe Biden is in that same bandbox, his approval rating stuck in the low 40’s for most of his consequential presidency. 

Biden’s approval rating is a subject of angst among Democrats, because it refuses to budge.  That’s been true for almost two years, after the messy Afghanistan exit ended his 50%+ post-Inaugural honeymoon.  In this past month of July, Biden had about as good a run as any president could hope for.  Most prominently, perhaps, was the continued array of positive economic data, which seem to be pointing toward sticking the “soft landing” the Fed has been targeting in its battle against inflation, one that slows the overheated economy without driving it into recession.  Inflation is down to 3.0%, but GDP growth bumped up yet again, now to +2.4%, while unemployment held at a near-record low of 3.6% (actually down a notch from June), the S&P 500 jumped 3% to an all-time high, and analyst after analyst has lowered the odds of a pre-2024 election recession. 

On top of all that, Biden’s likely opponent in 2024, Donald Trump, was charged with new counts of obstruction in the documents case and appears on the verge of new indictments by Georgia and the DOJ in cases related to the attempted subjugation of the 2020 election.  [Note:  on August 1, Trump was indicted by the DOJ for a series of conspiracies to overthrow the election, easily the most serious set of charges he faces.]   These indictments may help Trump win the GOP nomination, but they are anathema for the general election.  The country will quite possibly be faced with the spectacle of the GOP candidate spending much of the general election campaign season parked in various courtrooms. 

Then there came the news that the Trump campaign, for all of its fundraising prowess, largely fueled by the various indictments, is burning through that money at an alarming rate – largely to pay for Trump’s whopping legal bills.  And – the second indictment, in the documents case, was far less of a fundraising boon for him than the first one related to Stormy Daniels, essentially giving rise to the notion of diminishing returns at best, and rising concern with Trump's legal troubles at worst.

Biden was also gifted by Trump’s principal challenger (for now), Ron DeSantis, who has decided to make the “upside” of slavery a feature of the Florida educational curriculum and a talking point for his campaign.  Perhaps he figured the six--week abortion ban he rammed through in Florida was simply not conservative enough.  The only candidate that critiqued Trump at an Iowa event that featured most of the GOP field, former GOP rep Will Hurd, got booed off the stage.  Senator Tommy Tuberville has decided to hold up military promotions in protest of the military’s progressive abortion policies, putting national security at risk.  The Supreme Court killed another 50+ year old precedent in nuking affirmative action. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that the GOP could not be concocting a more toxic 2024 general election brew if they put the DNC in charge of their messaging.

On top of all that, in July violent crime was reported to be down in 2023 across 37 U.S. cities, and the number of migrant crossings has been cut in half due to the Biden Administration’s stricter asylum policies.  The economy, crime and immigration – Biden’s three most vulnerable issues – suddenly are looking far less fraught, and the GOP is struggling for a credible (if that matters) winning story on each of them.

And yet, for all that, Biden’s approval rating climbed all the way from 41% in June to 42% in July.  Democrats are gnashing their teeth with the grave concern that a President with a rating of 42% cannot possibly be re-elected.  Such a thing has never happened before.  Only George W. Bush won reelection with an approval rating under 50% -- or “underwater” in the parlance – and he checked in at 48%.  Barack Obama was also at 42% roughly 15 months before his reelection, but he managed to push it up over 50% by the time the ballots were being cast.  Trump never got there, stalling at 45% pre-election, and like Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush before him, failed to win a second term (Carter and Bush were below 40% prior to their reelection effort.)  So, the thinking goes, if Biden cannot get within field goal range of 50%, he’s toast.  The rule of thumb is clear – in the post-FDR era, every president with an approval rating of 48% and above gets re-elected, and everyone below gets defeated.

Nate Silver once said, in reference to the famed “Blue Wall” that would supposedly ensure Hillary Clinton’s victory in 2016, that there was a “Blue Wall” until there wasn’t one.  And this “48% or Bust” convention may just be another truism that is until it isn’t.

Presidential approval ratings have been operating in a far narrower band of late, the ceilings and floors getting tighter and tighter.  Note in the chart below that the three presidents who have shown the least variation in the rating over their years in office are the last three, Obama, Trump and now Biden.  The electorate is far less moved by day-to-day presidential hits and misses than they once were and they are far less willing to cross party lines to give even a temporary nod to the other side.

Polarization in America today is defined by negativity – we are driven much more by what we oppose than what we support.  The approval rating is no longer about presidential performance, it is about what we fear.  We perceive the stakes as enormous – it is not simply a matter of policy, it is the fate of the country that is perceived to be at stake.  Trump supporters hate liberal elites so much, and fear their ascension to and hold on power, that Trump could do anything – brag about “grabbing pussies,” pay off a porn star, try to overturn a fair election, steal classified documents, not to mention all the unnerving things he did as President, which earned him two impeachments -- and it would be either ignored entirely by his tribe, seen as fake news, or deemed (by the more elite wing of the party) as the price you must continually pay to keep the liberals out of power and America from disintegrating. 

The Democrats are, if anything, even more agitated about the entire Republican vision (Trump or no Trump) and its threat to America.  Even if Joe Biden had actually accepted fistfuls of dollars from Hunter Biden’s pals overseas, it would not shake the Blue view that Biden was nonetheless far, far better than any deep red alternative.  The stakes are too high to worry about much except controlling as many branches of the government as possible.

So, essentially, 40% of American voters will approve of any Democratic president, another 40% will approve of any Republican, and the other 20% hate the negativity so much that they will disapprove of any current office-holder once that honeymoon is over and the dust settles after the first flap.  Hence, all presidents going forward will have a 40-45% approval rating, as Trump and Biden have had, more or less, for the last seven years, and the figure itself is thus nearly irrelevant.  It does and will not really matter how a president performs; the approval rating merely reflects, as in everything these days, what uniform you are wearing.

(As an aside, politics is the only “consumer good” where you absolutely have to consume it.  You have to have a president, a governor, two Senators and a member of the House, whether you vote or not.  Imagine if all Coke and Pepsi did was run ads on how awful the other brand’s product tasted.  No one would drink soda.  But in politics, because someone will get elected, negative ads and negative coverage from the media you watch abounds – because it works.  The negative messages mostly are about stoking fear, and fear gets attention, drives ratings and often wins elections.  And thus almost everyone hates politics and politicians.)

So, we are left with a measure that is nearly set in stone, and not a reliable indicator of a president’s standing.  So why bother tracking the approval rating?  Maybe we shouldn’t, and at least eye it warily.  It seems obvious that, were this a few decades ago, Joe Biden would undoubtedly be in the 60%+ range by now.  The most important measures of peace and prosperity are on his side; his views on the leading issues of the day are the majority view, and the issues on which he is seen as “vulnerable” are fast fading in the wake of recent favorable data. 

This “set in stone” dynamic is also true of Biden’s ratings on various key issues (see chart below in the “Key Metrics” section).  Despite obvious improvements in inflation, GDP and unemployment in the past year, there has been no meaningful improvement in the rating of Biden’s economic stewardship, which remains stuck in the 39-40% range.

Biden’s only real problem is his age.  It is hard for his administration’s very real accomplishments and stances to break through when its own basic communications strategy is to hide Biden from sight, for fear that he might suddenly reveal himself as the next Dianne Feinstein or Mitch McConnell, the inevitable ravages of age suddenly thrust into public view.  And it does not help when Biden’s leading surrogates, such as Kamala Harris, Hakeem Jeffries and Chuck Schumer, are even less popular – far less so -- than Biden himself.  (The only one of them that is both popular and good at it, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, has had to deal almost non-stop with various transportation catastrophes, and thus he cannot continually be trotted out to articulate the administration’s positions on issues that are well beyond his own portfolio.)

There is a school of thought that Biden’s approval rating is a lagging indicator, that once the economic story becomes widely known (and more widely felt), Biden will experience the exact curve that Obama did in his run-up to reelection, pushing from the low 40%’s to at least somewhere close to 50%.  That could, indeed, happen, because Biden (unlike Trump) has been over 50% in his presidency and thus there appears to be a persuadable middle that only shows upside for Biden now.

But the view here is that we should stop obsessing about the approval rating, and focus instead on other data points.  The ones that matter most are the head-to-head polls between Biden and Trump, the presumptive nominees, in the four clear swing states:  Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona.  It is early in those states, and there have only been a few recent polls in each, but they clearly point to yet another very close contest at this juncture.

Stay tuned.



Having just trashed the approval rating, we now dutifully report it.  After all, it would be of note if Biden’s rating did indeed start to climb.  July was perhaps a very modest step in the right direction with the tiny movement from 41% to 42% in July.  Biden’s performance on the issues was generally unchanged.  The "Bidenometer" continues to improve, from 37 to 41, driven by increases in the Dow, consumer confidence and the GDP. 


The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +41 for July, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 41% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +41, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is higher and the GDP is stronger.  On the flip side, gas prices are higher, as is overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +41 under Biden.

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