Party People

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From the Boiling Frogs on The Dispatch

A recurring hazard of The Platform Formerly Known as Twitter is detecting sarcasm when it isn’t intended and not detecting it when it is. Outlandish ideas are the coin of the realm: When someone tweets “kill the Jews,” it’s not always instantly clear whether they’re mocking the attitude of “Hamas liberals” on campus or, er … (In the Musk era, “or, er” is usually the right answer.)

On Thursday, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat imagined a scenario that landed squarely on the fault line between sarcastic humor and “yeah, that’s absolutely plausible in the timeline we’ve entered.”

He was joking—I think. But none of us would be terribly surprised next fall to find Trump campaigning in an orange jumpsuit behind the glass in a federal pen and Biden campaigning in a hospital gown behind the glass in an ICU. In modern American politics, expect the unexpected.

The bit about third parties in his tweet is also more plausible than it might seem. “Demi-Celebrity Leftists” continue to pile into the race and position themselves as spoilers. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. pulling 18 percent (or better!) in the general election is a live possibility, at least right now. A Manchin-Romney ticket is unlikely, admittedly, but maybe not as unlikely as you think.

January 6, 2025, could be wilder in some ways than January 6, 2021, albeit hopefully with much less cop-punching. Expect the unexpected.

What can Democrats do?

They’re saddled with an incumbent in whom the public has lost faith. Their view of his political competence is plainly being shaped by their view of his mental competence, and because the latter won’t improve over time, it’s safe to assume the former won’t either. The idle hope that he’s more popular than the latest terrible poll would suggest is being undermined day by day by the next terrible poll. If you’re skeptical of the Times’ disastrous battleground results from last weekend, compare them to the disastrous results Bloomberg News just published.

If Democrats run Joe Biden against Donald Trump, they’re in grave peril of losing. But they have an important advantage over Republicans at the moment, one that helped them beat expectations considerably at the polls last November and then again on Tuesday night. They’re an honest-to-goodness political party in a way that the GOP’s autocratic cult is not.

That’s how they should run against Trump next year. Joe Biden isn’t on the ballot, they might say. The Democratic Party is.

The question is how to make the Democratic Party more appealing than its leader.

“Democrats are building a really impressive bench of moderates who are winning by big margins in swing states/districts who would be strong potential 2028 candidates,” Sarah Longwell tweeted on Wednesday, after the election results were in. “My unsolicited advice to Biden is to deploy these folks widely as surrogates. Show voters the Democrats’ future.”

That seems smart and sensible to me. In fact, how the party has gone about handling its problem with “Hamas liberals” functions in a way as proof of concept. Consider the case of one John Fetterman.

Fetterman is a basically dogmatic progressive, enough so to have run as the left-wing alternative to centrist Conor Lamb in last year’s Pennsylvania Senate primary. But on the subject of Israel, he’s broken with his comrades so sharply that lately he sounds like a Republican. An aggressive Republican too: Some of his jabs at pro-Palestinian activists rise to the level of taunting.

You’ve heard about people tearing down posters of Israeli hostages, yes? Fetterman’s heard about it as well.

After progressives like Rashida Tlaib promoted Hamas’ lie that Israel had bombed the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, Fetterman reproached them. “Who would take the word of a group that just massacred innocent Israeli civilians over our key ally?” he wondered. When reporters asked him about Israel killing Palestinian civilians, he rebuked them too: “They are not targeting civilians. They never have, they never will.”

Recently he was heckled at a Democratic rally for supporting Israel and was unbowed. “The joke’s on you,” he told the heckler. “I had a stroke. I can’t fully understand what you’re saying.”

John Fetterman, scourge of the pro-Hamas wing of the American left. Expect the unexpected.

I assume he’s acting out of sincere conviction, not as part of some sub rosa messaging campaign orchestrated by the White House—but if he were acting as part of a messaging campaign, he could scarcely be more useful to his party right now. Grassroots left-wing agitation in support of Hamas is so foul, morally and strategically, that it risks leaving the same sort of stink on Democrats as “defund the police” did in 2020. That nearly cost them the presidency and the House majority. The only way to convince swing voters that a vote for Biden’s party isn’t a vote to empower the nuts is to have Democratic officials show the same disdain for them as the average person might feel.

Fetterman, a man unambiguously of the left, has turned out to be a valuable surrogate for the president on that point. And there have been others: The single most righteous monologue about Israel’s new war that’s aired on national television since October 7 may have been delivered by—wait for it—Hillary Clinton.

More? When House Republicans sought to censure Tlaib for endorsing the genocidal slogan “from the river to the sea,” Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries condemned the phrase, agreed that it risks inciting violence, and reiterated that Hamas should be smashed. Even Bernie Sanders, the most influential progressive in America, scoffed at calls for a ceasefire between the two sides in an interview last weekend. Hamas has to go, he insisted.

What effect all of this might be having on how the electorate perceives the positions of the two parties is anyone’s guess for now. But my sense from following the conversation online is that even the right grudgingly concedes a distinction between “Hamas liberals” and the broader Democratic Party. (They don’t.) Criticism of agitators has been framed mostly as criticism of “campus culture,” not liberal politics writ large. Figures like Fetterman, Clinton, Jeffries, and Sanders have amplified Biden’s strong statements of solidarity with Israel after October 7 successfully enough to have limited the political contagion from their radical wing in a way that Democrats never managed to do with “defund the police.”

It’s not a “Sister Souljah moment” but it’s in the same key. And it goes to show the power of surrogates. When enough influential members of a party speak with one voice, that voice can shape public perceptions of what the party is and isn’t.

Biden needs that next year. Badly.

One of the many tragedies of this era for the American right is how Trump and Trumpism have consumed young Republican political talent.

The most promising young governor in the party is being steamrolled in this year’s presidential primary, a casualty of Trump’s hubris and ambition. He may never recover from the ridicule he’s endured for his “disloyalty.”

Successful young(-ish) governors like Chris Sununu and Doug Ducey are either out of politics or soon will be, despite how formidable they’d be as Senate candidates. They ran afoul of Trump and therefore would struggle to get through a primary, so they’ve decided not to bother.

Smart young conservatives like Elise Stefanik converted to Trumpism for the same reason, to not run afoul of him or his voters. There’s little left to distinguish phony, opportunistic populists like Stefanik from true believers like Marjorie Taylor Greene. They’re rubber stamps for Trump in equal measure; the only difference is that one mutters sotto voce while doing the stamping.

Right-wing political stars now tend to be made from charismatic charlatans who are good on television, in the image of the party’s leader, not from policy mavens. Kari Lake and Vivek Ramaswamy are better known than most Republican officeholders despite never having won an election.

The closest thing Trumpism has to a next-gen political success story is J.D. Vance in Ohio. In unguarded moments, Vance sounds like a fascist.

That’s a lot of political capital that Republicans have spoiled or squandered.

Democrats haven’t been as profligate. It’s ironic but true that the party led by the oldest president in American history has a more impressive bench of young officials at the moment than the GOP does. Take your pick at the gubernatorial level: Gretcher Whitmer of Michigan is 52; Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania is 50; Wes Moore of Maryland is 45; Andy Beshear of Kentucky, the darling of Tuesday night’s results, is 45 as well.

At 56, Gavin Newsom is the elder statesman among the up-and-coming Democratic governors. He was 5 years old when Joe Biden was sworn in as a senator.

Fetterman would be a major star in this moment if not for his stroke, and he may yet achieve national stardom as he recovers. (Hmmm.) He’s 54. Jeffries, who replaced octogenarian Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democratic caucus, is 53.

There’s only so much Democrats can do next year to counterprogram the relentless advance of Joe Biden’s age. But one thing they might try is to let their young bench take the lead as surrogates in making the case for him. I’ve heard people say of Sleepy Joe’s decline that America “doesn’t have a president right now.” If that’s the card Democrats have been handed, they should play it: Highlight the next generation of leaders on the trail and on television alongside Biden himself.

It’s hard for voters focused on the future to support a candidate born during World War II. Letting the candidates of tomorrow carry the message forth should ease some of that discomfort. The message would be that America isn’t reelecting Biden, it’s reelecting Democratic control of the executive branch. It’s choosing a party that currently includes lots of moderate-sounding forty- and fiftysomethings in influential offices, not a president. You’re voting for an agenda with support across multiple generations, and that agenda is bigger than one man. Which is emphatically untrue with respect to the other party.

In two ways, the circumstances of the election have conspired to make that message a bit more potent than it would normally be.

One is the GOP’s all but certain takeover of the Senate. With Joe Manchin retiring, West Virginia is a mortal lock to turn red next fall. That means a 50/50 Senate at worst, with Republicans on offense against Democratic incumbents in red states like Montana and Ohio. If Trump wins, the Republican Senate majority will deliver a Stefanik-style rubber stamp to his nominees, sotto voce or otherwise.

And if you thought some of the nominees in his first term were alarming, just you wait.

Swing voters hearing that pitch from a self-interested 80-year-old on whom they’ve already soured may feel underwhelmed. Hearing it from Shapiro, Whitmer, and the rest of a more popular next-gen bunch might hit harder.

The other X factor for Democrats is abortion, of course.

It may be true that Trump would take the most moderate line on regulating abortion of any potential Republican nominee, but there are limits. He can get away with opposing a strict ban at the national level, and perhaps opposing national restrictions altogether on grounds of federalism. But he can’t possibly match Democrats when they vow to pass a federal law codifying the Roe regime if they gain control of the government.

Pro-choice voters might like the idea of such a law even if they don’t like Biden. Having the likes of Whitmer pitch them on it will drive home the sense that they’re voting for an agenda next fall, not for a candidate.

There’s another reason to showcase the Democratic bench. Some of those I’ve mentioned, notably Shapiro and Whitmer, won their last races by landslides in battleground states. The more they become the respective faces of the Biden campaign locally, the easier it’ll be potentially to create a “Democrats vs. Trump” dynamic for swing voters there. I don’t know if the president can beat Trump head-to-head in Pennsylvania at this point, but I’m confident Josh Shapiro could.

Relying heavily on surrogates is the party’s best play for 2024. But it has problems.

One problem is that the more the Democratic bench takes the lead in campaigning, the more glaring Biden’s diminution risks appearing by contrast. Republicans will accuse Team Joe of showcasing Fetterman and the like because the president simply isn’t up to managing a grueling scheduling on the trail.

There can’t be another “basement campaign” this time. Biden will need to prove his vitality, even if younger allies are getting plenty of camera time.

Another problem: None of this solves the third-party threat he’s dealing with.

It’s fine and good for surrogates to help him consolidate swing voters, but one wonders if even Bernie Sanders’ help can keep Biden from bleeding progressive votes to the likes of Jill Stein, Cornel West, and RFK Jr. Having Gavin Newsom doing Fox interviews on the president’s behalf every week will do only so much to stop “Hamas liberals” from peeling off to independent candidates and ultimately reelecting Trump.

Maybe the fringe left prefers that. “Heighten the contradictions,” “the worse, the better”: Socialists have an esteemed tradition of encouraging political disaster in the belief that the chaos afterward will pave their way to power.

Mainstream liberals should worry about it, and doubtless will. One Dispatch colleague told me recently that he wonders if Democrats will end up bankrolling a super PAC next year devoted to … anti-vaxxism. By extolling Kennedy’s skepticism of vaccines and highlighting Trump’s role in Operation Warp Speed, the PAC would aim to steer hardline right-wing populists away from Trump and toward RFK.

Are Democrats cynical enough to do that? They were cynical enough to support a MAGA crank in a primary against a House Republican who voted to impeach Trump, weren’t they?

Having good surrogates won’t be enough to drag a candidate as weak and unpopular as Biden over the line. “Dark arts” will also be needed, and will be used.

But good surrogates are a good place to start. Emphasize the agenda, deemphasize the president. Democrats have the good fortune to belong to a party dedicated to something grander than keeping their nominee out of prison. They should take full advantage.

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