Theory of Change #047: Alex Shephard on how Democrats aren't responding to the moment
The far-right U.S. Supreme Court opinion overturning the right to abortion at the federal level was leaked to the public on May 3, but it wasn’t until July 7th that President Joe Biden unveiled any sort of meaningful action to protect access to federally approved abortion medications and to prohibit states from banning people from traveling across state lines to seek the procedure.
The judicial activist writing was on the wall long before this, however, when the Christian fundamentalist Amy Coney Barrett was successfully nominated to the Supreme Court to replace the recently deceased Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That’s even more notable because Ginsburg herself had explicitly warned advocates of reproductive rights that they needed to do more than rely on courts to protect them.
Now that Christian nationalists have firm control of the most dangerous branch of the U.S. government, a project which they publicly campaigned on for decades, Democratic elites are finally having to pay attention to the radicalism that’s held control the Republican party for more than a generation. So far, the response from party leaders has been less-than-encouraging, to put it mildly.
Instead of informing the public from the presidential “bully pulpit” about the many Republican Supreme Court outrages, Biden has restricted his communications to newspaper op-eds and background interviews, with occasional exhortations to “vote.” The White House seems to be under the impression that being quiet and waiting for economic inflation to simmer down will lead him to victory, as it did in 2020.
But the strategy hasn’t worked. In public opinion polls, Biden’s approval rating is the lowest it’s ever been. Will Biden step up and give people a reason to vote for his party before the mid-terms are over? Or will the series of extreme Supreme Court rulings do the job for him?
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: We’re glad to have you here today, Alex.
ALEX SHEPHARD: It’s good to be with you.
SHEFFIELD: So you wrote a piece recently for the New Republic about– you called it “The Absent Biden Presidency.” What do you mean by that? I assume that wasn’t your headline, but if it was, what does that mean to you?
SHEPHARD: Yeah, it wasn’t, [00:04:00] yeah, it wasn’t my headline, but I think it’s it more or less sums up how I feel.
And I think this is a pretty long pattern. Jim Newell at Slate called it the “two weeks late presidency,” which is probably a little more accurate, but going back really to, almost to the start, what we’ve seen is a pretty consistent pattern of crisis and then this kind of long period of sort of waiting behind the scenes or in many cases, actually refusing to do much at all.
This happened during the sort of chaotic pullout from Afghanistan. It happened during the Omicron surge, when the administration at first rejected sending at home tests out to Americans out of hand. And then reluctantly started doing them. It’s happened with the question of student loan deferral.
But I think with Roe was the most galling example. So you had a situation that, unlike you could maybe say that, Omicron snuck up on the country. I think some people would’ve said that, but with the case of Roe, the decision on Dobbs have been leaked, I think on May 3rd and then the actual decision doesn’t come out for almost two months after that.
And what you saw was kind of a lot of dithering, a lot of hemming and hawing, a real refusal to say much of anything. Finally, the president signs an executive action. And what you get is the sense that no one really understands the urgency of the moment, and is just twiddling their thumbs and waiting until the midterm elections.
And what you need to have, I think, for Democrats to actually push back against the growing radicalism of the Republican party is somebody who’s consistently pointing that out. I think for Biden and those closest to him, they think that they can go on TV, they can write op-eds, that sort of point to these things, but without actually showing voters that they understand just how serious these problems are, what you’re seeing, I think is, is a kind of malaise that that voters are, are really recoiling from.
SHEFFIELD: There’s a contrast, I think, when you look at the actions of the two parties on abortion leading up to this moment. So in dozens of Republican dominated states, they passed what they called abortion trigger laws, designed and written such that the moment that Roe [00:06:00] versus Wade was overturned, the law in their state would immediately be changed. In many cases, these were laws that explicitly banned abortion from conception in a lot of cases with no exceptions for rape or incest, or some even for the health of the mother. And they were doing these things for years and pro-choice advocates had tried to bring the national Democratic party’s attention to this. And they were mostly just dismissed.
I’ve seen so many people, responding to the Dobbs ruling saying, ‘You guys said that I was being alarmist, you said I was being exaggerating. And I was right.’
And they were. There was no countervailing trigger laws on the other side. So like in a couple of states, either purple state or had had historic Democratic dominance, they had never bothered to repeal their antiabortion laws. When you look at the way that both the left and the right look at institutions, political institutions, the left seems to think that they own them, and will always own them. That’s what it seems like.
SHEPHARD: Yeah. I mean, think that is how people on the left thought about these things.
I think particularly after the kind of raft of more liberalish Supreme Court decisions that came out, I think that they, no one ever really paid attention to the one that sort of kicked the door down, which was Bush v. Gore. But because there is this wave of rulings that paved the way for gay marriage, for instance, the assumption was kind of that we had done the institutional work here. That the court is an ally for us, and we don’t really have to pay attention to it that much.
And you never had any kind of infrastructure on the left or even within mainstream Democratic circles that you do with something like the Federalist Society to push these kinds of organizations. And now, you get these weird situations where Democrats, when they talk, when they talk about these things, Kate Beddingfield, who is a communications director for Obama was kind of like, well, we shouldn’t be too mad at Biden about this, because the right has been working on this [00:08:00] stuff for 40 years. And we’re just starting. And it’s been a big project for them, and now we have to figure out how to fight it.
And you’re like, no, no, that makes this way worse. Anyone who’s been paying attention has seen the writing on the wall coming for for quite some time.
And I think with Biden, being someone who supported the Hyde Amendment for most of, even the 2020 primary, he’s an 80 year old Catholic, right? I think his personal opinion of abortion is not particularly hard to guess. But I think you have a thing where getting them to do something is hard enough, but for them to also just fumble the messaging on this so badly is particularly frustrating.
Especially when you talk to people around these circles, they sort of say, well, a lot of the big problems that people are mad about stuff like inflation are things that they’re correct in saying this, that there’s not a lot we can do about it. These are global problems. They’re super complex. No one really understands them. And they say, it’s a, it’s a messaging problem.
And you’re just like, well, then fix the messaging at the very least. And then, as I mentioned before, there’s just this consistent bag fumbling when it comes to seeing the urgency of things. In December, when Omicron was spiking, they should have been like, ‘Hey, we’re going to send tests out to everybody.’ Instead, the White House spokesperson mocked the idea.
Eventually, they do the right thing, the tests are going out in January, but at which point you get no political value for doing that at all.
And he had a similar thing with Roe where there could have been a moment where they say: ‘Look, we have to have X plan of attack for when this likely happens and we’re going to sign these executive orders that don’t really do a lot, but they at least show our commitment to fighting for these things. We’re going to come out against the filibuster in this one instance, in terms of codifying Roe.’
And they didn’t do that either. So you’re left with a situation where yes, eventually he supports ending the filibuster to codify Roe. Eventually you get this executive action, which is acting as a bulwark against various Republican efforts to subvert, for instance, the ability to travel across state lines, to get an abortion.
And instead of doing these things immediately, they just kind of dither for a while. And then they kind of had to be dragged, kicking and screaming to just do the smallest and most minute things.
SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm . Well, there was one [00:10:00] other thing which was attempted, which was they did have a have a vote in the Senate to try to protect abortion rights. But the way that it was written, it was not actually a preservation of Roe. It was actually an expansion of it.
SHEFFIELD: And the thing about Roe vs. Wade is that, as a political matter, as (Ruth Bader) Ginsburg herself said, it was not advisable for the court to have done this, that the people’s representatives should have done it. And they could have, at any point in time they could have done it.
SHEFFIELD: But they didn’t. And then when the one time when this was attempted at the national level, instead of keeping the framework that had already sort of had a public acceptance– the Roe framework basically said that states are allowed to place a fair number of restrictions on the third trimester and then less on the second one, and then almost none on the third.
That basically maps out to what public opinion on the issue. But instead of trying to just match what had already kind of been the national consensus, the Democrats pushed a bill that was an expansion of that. And I’m not saying that that policy was wrong or anything, but it was a much heavier lift than they needed to do.
And you can argue that maybe Lisa Murkowski or Susan Collins might not have had kept their promise of voting for that. But on the other hand, they did for decades had said publicly that they supported Roe vs. Wade. And at least it would’ve given them a chance to be on the record in terms of if they had matched that in legislation, but they didn’t.
SHEPHARD: Yeah. I think that that’s, it’s just sort of an own goal in that regard, because again, like you’re trying to keep your caucus together and divide the other one right? Especially even when you’re doing these symbolic votes, it’s especially what you’re doing. And I think there too, legislatively, things haven’t been significantly better.
One of the other things that’s frustrating about the response to a lot of these things is that there are moments when Biden is engaged and Congress to a greater extent, too. You saw this with the invasion of Ukraine, right. That was another thing that had been sort of teased for [00:12:00] several weeks.
But then also when it happened, it was significantly larger than was expected, but I think the administration and Congress to a slightly lesser extent really kind of stepped up like this is something that’s extremely important. And they use it as an opportunity, not just to do politicing, but also to expand NATO. To do things that are part of the priorities of the administration itself.
And you just haven’t seen that in the same regard with domestic politics. I mean, you could also really point to something like Build Back Better as a similar failure where I think Biden really sort of just kind of sat back and decided to let Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin try to hammer it out.
But you know, since December we’ve basically known what Joe Manchin wants in a bill like this. It’s some clean energy funding, some other vaguely kind of infrastructure things, prescription drug price cuts that don’t really hurt pharmaceutical companies that much.
And there was never any, there never seemed to be any effort to prioritize just saying, ‘Okay, well, Joe Manchin is the first let’s have something. Yeah. Yes, let’s do it.’
And I think that was the sort of most frustrating thing is that, I don’t know if it was out of fear that this would then create a kind of whackamole like problem, right? Because with progressives in particular, but instead you just get these situations that just sort of get drawn out forever: student loan debt cancellation being one of the bigger ones that they get drawn out for so long. And then the administration eventually does something, but the political window for getting any kind of credit for that is already passed.
And instead you’re just kind of left with this sense of disappointment that probably would’ve been there to some extent anyways, but there just seems to be no actual sense of urgency at all. And meanwhile, the party leadership and the president in particular just largely seemed to be kind of out to lunch.
SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. I think one of the other things that was interesting for me to see is that Biden basically had adopted– Biden, Schumer and Pelosi had adopted the Republican legislative approach. So the way that the bills, the appropriations bills, used to be done [00:14:00] is that they were passed by agency and that was called regular order. And that was actually at the better way for Democrats to do things, because they were able to peel off Republican votes sometimes and have more unity in terms of their own caucus, by not bundling everything together.
But the reason that Republicans couldn’t match that and why they went to this giant omnibus bill idea was that they couldn’t get their members to vote for appropriations, especially for the Department of Education or various things. And so they basically had to resort to, ‘Well, if we stick everything in one bill, then these morons have to vote for it. At least some of them will, enough of them will have to vote for it because they say they want to fund the military. Well, we’re bundling with all this other stuff, so they’ll have no choice.’
And so that’s the way that Republicans have to legislate, but that those incentives are literally the opposite for the way that the Democratic caucus works.
And so, as a result, when you practice Republican legislating, it doesn’t work for Democrats. Imagine that.
SHEPHARD: Yeah. Shocking. Well also, it’s been under reported to some extent, but I think one of the larger issues here is that with which I think the party will face– I think we’ll see what happens if they’re end being a primary in 2024, which I personally doubt there will be– but the amount of anger on the left side of things is pretty profound at this point. In part because they, I think, rightly see themselves as having made a pact with Biden after he won the nomination in 2020. Biden was basically like, ‘I’m going to be the same old avuncular, but essentially moderate guy, I’m going to make deals. I want there to be compromise. However, like I’m going to push for, a set of progressive domestic spending priorities, more or less that you all will like, that are sort of Bernie-ish.’
And the way that he got around this was to invoke FDR, which I think was also very clever because it rightly exempted him from the kind of neoliberal turn of the Democratic party, post [00:16:00] Carter. And he did. And then, when they did the infrastructure deal or the deal was supposed to be, the centrists get their infrastructure bill and the more progressive, or I’d say more at this point more mainstream Democrats, get their spending bill and progressives said, ‘Sure, we’ll hold the line, we’ll defend.’
And for the most part, you’ve certainly seen criticisms from members of The Squad or Bernie Sanders about the administration’s foreign policy. But in terms of domestic policy, it’s been quite muted. And especially when you think about the daily circus relating to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, particularly in the late fall. And the whole time progressives were just like, ‘We’re going to hold the line. We’ll stick with Biden.
And for a while, they kept these two bills packaged together. But I think you saw this start to fracture once the decision was made to just pass the infrastructure bill and move along.
I mean that was, it was what eight months ago, nine months ago. But you know, even now when you talk to particularly progressive groups but still people that are quite close to a lot of these candidates, there is a lot of anger. It is still there.
I think that, when it comes to other questions like student loans, I think there’s a real sense that these groups got played, that they sort of held up their end of the bargain. And what they’ve been met with is the administration constantly going and placating corporate Democrats, like Joe Manchin.
And I think that’s a kind of underrecognized like aspect of all this, and it’s something that I think will continue to build, particularly after after the midterms.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think so. And now we’re seeing kind of the more public emergence of a Democratic mini caucus in the House as well with Josh Gottenheimer, who is a New Jersey Democrat who calls himself a centrist and says the party doesn’t know what it’s doing. But basically his agenda seems to be we need to protect large corporations from taxes.
SHEPHARD: Yeah, Gottenheimer’s pet issue is basically in New Jersey, there are high property taxes and it used to be that you could basically deduct them from your federal taxes and you can’t do that anymore.
But Gottenheimer, his whole reason for being is to make it so you can deduct these, your property taxes, which is a thing that affects basically no one except for the very rich, but affects them a lot. But that’s [00:18:00] literally his big issue.
SHEFFIELD: And the idea that that’s some sort of winning issue for Democrats is just ludicrous.
At the same time though, I do think that there’s, it does seem like that kind of a dam has been broken with regard to criticizing Biden. So like it used to be that if you would write something that was critical of Biden or somebody in the administration, that you would get deluged with people saying, ‘Oh, so you’re a fascist supporter now, huh? Is that what it is? You like Trump now, huh?’
And I don’t see people saying that as much on Twitter in response to criticism of Biden now.
SHEPHARD: Yeah. I mean, I think what we have instead, I think, is the emergence of a kind of fatalism.
And this is definitely true within the administration, and in some ways it’s not wrong, that you have no margin for error on the Senate. You have a very slim margin of error in the House, so you do have technically have a trifecta, but getting anything done is really hard. And I think it used to be that people would accuse you of being either a communist or sort of enabler of fascists, if you would criticize Biden for things.
And now, there is a version of it that’s annoying and kind of eggheaded that’s like, ‘ You just don’t understand politics.’
But I think you can both acknowledge the complexity of the situation and come to the realization that the one thing that has not been said enough, which is just the first year of the Biden administration represents a pretty colossal missed opportunity.
And I think that the administration kind of decided to start resting on its laurels at a certain point, that it expected the country to reopen fully after COVID and to get a sort of political boost from that.
It expected voters to look at the objective information that had come out about both Donald Trump’s efforts to subvert the election, but also the larger Republican apparatus that backed him while he did that, and also look at Joe Biden as mostly kind of normal guy who isn’t too fussy and is not going to upend your life and say, ‘Yeah, we like this guy. We’re going to keep backing him forever.’ And the various factions within the [00:20:00] Democratic party would sort of grin and bear it and come together, and pass mutually beneficial pieces of legislation.
And more or less none of that happened. The administration is so intent on being able to take credit for reopening the country, which more or less has happened– although there are COVID cases everywhere. We’re in the middle of another wave right now. I had it a week ago, 10 days ago, for the second time in six months.
And the priority was never how do we figure out a way to deal with this, to deal with the persistence of COVID. Instead they were like, ‘No, no, if we say that we’re going to have to live with this virus forever to some extent, and take various measures to limit the economic and personal and existential damage that it causes, then we will lose the political benefits that we incur from being able to claim that we reopened the country.
So they just didn’t do anything for a long time. And then when Omicron happened, they were really, really slow to jump on it, because I think they were worried that their sort of golden goose that they were planning on using to campaign in 2022 and 2024 would go away. And they didn’t take any action until it was too late.
That’s just another instance. Even when they’re sort of given a kind of political gift or at least the ability to claim with some degree of certainty, with seriousness that they succeeded, it’s just immediately taken away by fecklessness.
SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. And I mean to some degree, for people who did and do make that criticism that to defend Biden is to enable Trump, I can kind of see where they’re coming from because there is this unfortunate emergent industry of pundits who might actually have left wing beliefs, but they cater to right wing audiences.
SHEFFIELD: Basically the only thing they ever do on their programs or podcasts or sites is just bash Democrats and say how bad Democrats are. And so a lot of people who are on the more progressive side of the aisle, they see this happening and they’re rightfully upset about that. I mean, it’s a real problem, the leftist who only [00:22:00] attacks the left. Do you think that’s an issue for some people?
SHEPHARD: I think it’s definitely an issue. I mean, I think the question to which it’s like, one of the things that’s acting is a headwind. I’m not as sure about, I mean, I think that there is a lot of frustration with Biden right now. And that you can sort of put it into various buckets.
One of those buckets is on the left. I think a lot of the disaffection with Biden from younger voters can sort of be summed up here that essentially that this is like the most blatant or galling example in a while of Democrats making promises to young people and then not following through on them.
So you, when you look at the things that young voters care about, they care disproportionately about climate change and gun violence. There has been this kind of compromise gun control bill that I think the administration can tout as some kind of success. But when you look at the bill itself, it doesn’t really have a lot to do with gun control per se. There’s a lot of funding for mental health stuff that closes various loopholes and improved some elements in the background check process.
But I think these voters have partly soured on Biden because of a lack of action there, I think if you’re a more engaged, progressive, you’re probably already, you are always skeptical of Biden and the mainstream Democratic, whatever you want to call it, corporate wing.
And I think, there has been a lot of damage taken there just because there’s been so much that’s been galling about this administration. And I think also because, particularly over the last couple of months, but particularly since Dobbs, they have really taken up left bashing within the administration as their preferred way of dealing with criticism, which I think is not fair, but also there’s a lot of frustration among progressive activists, but also lawmakers because they feel like they held up their end of the bargain and weren’t rewarded for it.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and just to underline what you were saying specifically this past week, there was a controversy where White House communications director, Kate Beddingfield said the following in an on record interview to the Washington Post: “Joe Biden’s goal in responding to Dobbs is not to satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the [00:24:00] mainstream of the Democratic party.”
And there was a lot of pushback for that remark because of course, when you look at what Democratic voters want with regard to abortion, they’re pretty much on board with it. What did that even mean, calling them out of step? What does that even mean? She never defined it and people were angry about that.
But I do think though that, there is an asymmetry between the two parties. For Republicans, they have their corporate wing, if you will. And then they have their Christian supremacist wing. And the Christian supremacist s among the voters is obviously a lot bigger. But at the same time, that wing also has this vast media apparatus that is out there constantly motivating the people who agree with them. And then also attempting to persuade the people who don’t to just let them have what they want.
And so now you’ve seen kind of a shift in libertarianism, Republican libertarianism, whereas that before they didn’t like the fundamentalist Christians and thought they were stupid morons who were authoritarians, now, a lot of them are like, ‘Well, you know what? I kind of am authoritarian. I’m willing to have some fascism here to protect capitalism from government.’
And Peter Thiel the billionaire, has obviously been a big role at that, you’ve seen the rise of people like JD Vance and, and the guy in Arizona, Blake Masters, they don’t campaign as Christian nationalists and they might not even be big fundamentalists themselves, but they’re okay with it. They’re okay with letting them do what they want.
Whereas on the Democratic side, there’s just not really much of an infrastructure to hold party leaders accountable and to really push back against the sort of corporate agenda on that side, would you say?
SHEPHARD: Yeah. Yeah. And I think also there’s a similar thing where this gets to some of the frustrations with Biden, but you know, the way that a lot of this has worked or the way that this coalition I think has grown or been helped together is that this vast media apparatus.
Although I think this message has existed there for quite a long time, it’s become party dogma, partly through [00:26:00] Donald Trump, but also various Fox News anchors and many others very mainstream figures who started to push this idea that the left represents an existential threat to the future of the country. And that essentially, the country is under siege by a woke mob who wants to imprison you for being a straight white male Christian, wants to enforce critical race theory–
SHEFFIELD: To force your child to be transgender.
SHEPHARD: Yes, your child will be forced to be trans and also they’ll force your child to have an abortion. It sort of folds in on itself really, really quickly. But you, you hear this a lot from sort of the kind of disaffected mainstream conservative or somebody uses, ‘Oh, I am sympathetic to liberal causes, but I just can’t get behind this blah, blah, blah.’
And I think a lot of that is hokum, but there is, I think at least a recognition of the broader existential facts of living in America in 2022, which is that this is a moment in which the American experiment itself is under threat in a way that hasn’t been in quite a long time.
And there’s no willingness on the Democratic side to acknowledge that at all. I think you still kind of get this kind of pablum, or these kind of basic appeals to the kind of basic decency of the country and bipartisanship being the big one. And that, we still have to work across the aisle but they sort of talk at it both sides of their mouth, right?
So Biden will say these things, but then on the other hand, on the campaign trail, they say we’re facing a, a series of existential threats, right. There’s the threats to voting rights. There’s what happened on January 6th. There’s climate change, right?
SHEPHARD: There are all of these things that are that are affecting us profoundly.
And then I think the distance between that rhetoric and what’s actually happening on the ground and the rhetoric from, for how they govern has really never been greater. And I think, if you’re a consistent Democratic voter, particularly a younger one, somebody who might have voted for Sanders or Warren in the primary but supported Biden for any reason, either because of his shift to the left or because, you saw the necessity of electing any Democrat in this political environment that that is starting to grate on [00:28:00] you too.
SHEFFIELD: Just going back to what you were saying about this narrative that a lot of lukewarm Republican voters have been told by Fox and others that you don’t have to like Donald Trump, you can think he’s stupid. You can think Republican ideas are dumb, but at least they’re not going to destroy the country. They’re not going to put you in jail. And they’re not going to make you a criminal for reading the Bible.
And these are lies, but at the same time, you don’t see that kind of reciprocal message being carried to the public with regard to the actual extremism. I mean, “Democratic extremism” in Congress, what do they want? Well, they want healthcare for everybody, they want to have student debt forgiveness. They want to have relief for people who have problem mortgages. I mean, that’s what the extreme left in the United States wants.
Whereas when you look at what the actual extreme right elected officials. They want outright Christian supremacism. They want to ban all abortion. They want to ban birth control.
They want to ban any kind of transgender affirming treatment. They want to ban same sex marriage. They want to criminalize being gay or lesbian. That’s actually what these people want. This is a really powerful message to let people know that this stuff is happening. And that many of these members of Congress will outright meet with white nationalists and speak at their events.
Just telling the public that these things are happening. That’s a huge, huge miss that they’re not doing this. Because they’re allowing the Republicans to really push a very distorted opposite version of that. And it works. There’s so many people that I run into all the time on the internet, and elsewhere, and in person, that they really think that the Democratic party is this communist operation. They really believe this, it’s incredible.
SHEPHARD: Yeah. And I think you do run into this occasionally.
There is a [00:30:00] psychological issue at play here too, where I think Democrats do have one slight messaging problem, which is that one thing that I think often happens is that they will try to make the case that when they try to make the case that Republicans are this extremist party, that this is just politics or whatever, but that has just put them in a position where they’re uncomfortable making those cases outright.
And so you end up in this very skewed and distorted political environment that you were just describing in which I think a lot of voters who aren’t necessarily following the day to day election, but somebody who might say, okay, well, I think that I don’t like January 6th. And I think that what Donald Trump did, there was bad. But I also don’t like the fact that Democrats are forcing teachers to tell my children that white people are evil or something.’
SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm .
SHEPHARD: And, so that, I think, was the sort of political environment that led Glenn Youngkin to win the governorship in Virginia in 2021, that he was able to exploit that kind of gap. And what you just are not getting is a willingness from the party to really just go after this.
One question will be what the lingering influence of the January 6th committee hearings has been. Will it save American democracy, I’m not so sure. But I do think it is a rare and forceful condemnation involving many of the people involved of this shift within the Republican party. And it’s kind of thing that you haven’t seen from Democrats in, in quite some time. But I think one of the reasons why they’re most comfortable doing it is that the most prominent person on this committee is Liz Cheney, who’s one of the worst Republicans that there is, who just happens to be on the right side of this one particular issue.
I think they’re much more comfortable attacking the shift towards authoritarianism within the Republican party via these kinds of cutouts, like the Lincoln Project or whatever, instead of making the case forcefully that you you may not like all of the things that we’re about, but in general, we’re in favor of people having healthcare and making their own choices about when to have children. I think that there’s no reason to run away from taking up that kind of mantle.
It’s the exact kind of like mantle that Republicans successfully took really since the Cold War.
SHEFFIELD: I think the other thing also though, is that to the extent that they do occasionally [00:32:00] talk about democracy under threat or something like that, they will, through the Democratic congressional campaign committees or various other organizations, will go and try to boost extreme far-right candidates in the Republican primaries.
So like they did that in Illinois. And they’re doing it right now in Arizona. They’re trying to boost Kari Lake, who is this complete nut job who is running for governor there, big election conspiracist. And the Democratic party is paying for ads for her. So it’s very demoralizing to a lot of their activists when they do things like this, and it’s got to be confusing to just an average person when they see some ad talking about how Donald Trump loves Kari Lake, paid for by the Democrats. I’m sure that’s got to be confusing, everybody looking at that.
But it really undermines that they claim to be concerned about democracy and the long term health of the United States political system. Well if you actually believe that, why are you spending millions of dollars promoting fascists?
SHEPHARD: Yeah, I mean, I’ve written about this last month, but I think it’s like one of the silliest things that they can do, because again, it also, it goes back to what we’ve been talking about, right?
You either you can either take the things that you’re saying, or at least saying to some extent about, about this election. Somebody like Nancy Pelosi would say, it’s a wing of the Republican party, but not the Republican party itself. But if you’re taking even that milquetoast and not particularly accurate version of things, then if you’re taking that seriously, then that involves not having the House majority PAC, which you basically control, boosting these candidates to the tune of, as you said, several million dollars.
And it is just sort of too cute. I think there’s no reason to actually believe that these Democrats are taking this seriously as an existential threat, they’re playing political games and they’re playing political games that they’ve been burned on before.
This is a party that actively boosted Donald Trump during the 2016 election. They wanted Donald Trump which, and I think wrongly at the time too, under this assumption that he would [00:34:00] be too divisive, they still thought that, oh, if Trump’s a nominee, we’re going to, we’re going to have 70 senators, and
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and the reality is he was the strongest actually of all the Republican candidates.
SHEPHARD: Yeah. And I think, there’s, there’s been this polling as well. This Times-Sienna poll showed it as well, which is the Democrats have made huge gains among white college educated voters or just college educated voters in general. But one of the things that I think they should be very scared about is, I think Donald Trump does have a certain superpower of bringing out sort of non-traditional or inconsistent voters, right?
And he benefited from that twice, really in both 2016 and 2020. But there are pretty strong signs that at least some of those voters, many of whom are non-white, but most of whom live in sort of rural or exurban suburban areas are shifting to the Republican party.
And this is, these are voters who, I think Democrats have just counted on for several decades now. But what you’re seeing as part of this as well– especially as Democrats have not really accomplished a lot but also been unwilling or less willing to talk about a lot of pressing issues– is that there’s a real danger that a lot of these voters will sort of drift over to the Republican party and simply not come back, the way that a lot of white non-college educated voters did to the Republican party, starting in the late 70s and early 80s.
SHEFFIELD: And a lot of that is religious oriented. And I think it, it kind of goes to their, to the Democratic consulting class or politician class. When you look at who they are, these concerns of people who have fundamentalist beliefs but might not be particularly wedded to either party, when you have a party that is openly running on christofascism, it’s easy for some people to just look at the first part, the “Christ” part and be like, ‘Oh, well, this is a party for Christians. Well, I’m a Christian. And so maybe I’ll have to give them a second chance and see what they have to say.’
And then at the same time, they’re also on the media side of things just flooding the zone [00:36:00] with these pundits. So recently Media Matters did a profile of this woman named Allie Beth Stuckey. She’s some Blaze TV host and she’s just spouting flat out Christian fundamentalist dogma, and doing it as a political show.
And her target audience is young women in their twenties. And it’s got to work for some of these people because she’s talking about some of the very same things that they hear about in their churches. And so if you’re interested in searching up those topics, and you don’t have a political bent, you’re going to come into contact with some of her content.
And they’re doing this across the board with just tons of these people, whether it’s through Blaze TV or Daily Wire, or PragerU, there’s just this enormous investment in propaganda, especially on YouTube, that the right wing is making and the left almost has nothing to respond to it with. It’s really disgraceful.
SHEPHARD: Yeah, I think that there still isn’t a willingness, particularly among the party’s leadership or its kind of executive class to acknowledging this. I think these are still people who mostly think the way to talk to voters is via the evening news. I think it’s no accident that two of the most important policy issues that the administration is focusing on right now, combating inflation and the war in Ukraine, when they announced new initiatives on both of these fronts, they did them via op-eds. One in the Wall Street Journal and one in the New York Times.
And that is just not a good way to reach voters. Especially when you have the sophisticated and very well funded network of right wing pundits.
It’s another instance in which the mainstream party has been really, really slow to acknowledge what is going on. They’ve just assumed that there are sort of built in advantages in terms of media and in terms of young voters and people of color, ‘we’ll just kind of continue in perpetuity without doing very much.’
And there’s been a very well funded effort on the right to push back against that. And you’re beginning to see that have pretty significant results. And there’s still, I think not enough action particularly from donors. And again, I think a lot of that is because donors are afraid of what will happen if they do [00:38:00] that. Because these donors are pro corporate people.
I think that the big fear is that, if you fund a news outlet like the Daily Wire or something, you saw this with Think Progress, that was a great example. I mean, Think Progress was one of the better sort of, progressive ish oriented sites and, eventually donors just sort of got tired of it, in part because they also didn’t see it as significantly holding up its interests.
I mean, Elon Musk is the extreme example, but even if you look at Jeff Bezos’s Twitter feed, I think that there’s there’s a real fear amongst some of these people that if they fund Democrats too much, then what’ll end up happening is that, they’ll get antitrust legislation, and that’s the big thing that they’re afraid of, or higher taxes or unions.
SHEFFIELD: That’s really is such a disgrace that that happened. But you’re right. It kind of flows out of a larger problem in Democratic elites, which is kind of this Mid-Atlantic, elite bias that they all have.
And so like for them arguments that the system has failed you, for them, these are totally stupid and worthless false arguments. Because for them, the system is great.
SHEFFIELD: They went to private schools K through 12, and then they got into their Ivy League and then they got their job right out of their bachelor’s program. And then they got another job handed to them when they went to law school or whatever.
For them, the system is perfect. It couldn’t be better for them. And so they can’t see that for the vast, vast majority of the people, it doesn’t work. It has failed them. Many people have these college degrees that couldn’t help them get a job. Or many people couldn’t get into college because they couldn’t afford it because the tuition rates were too high. And then now they’re stuck.
They were working in some industry that collapsed on them and then people say, ‘oh well you should just learn to code. You should just go back to school.’
‘Well, I never went to school to begin with and I don’t know how the hell to even do that.’ They have nothing to say to people who live so far [00:40:00] removed from them.
SHEPHARD: Well, yeah. And one of the other things too, is that I think part of Biden’s message to Democrats when he was running in 2019 and 2020, was that he was one of the guys who could hold this coalition together. Which is, it’s sort of ironic for a guy who represented Delaware and the Senate for 400 years to make that case. But, in terms of retail politics, Biden has always had that kind of style. And yet, there hasn’t really been, there hasn’t really been an effort, I think, from the administration to try to go after these people.
And meanwhile, like Alex Salmon at the American Prospect last month had a great story on the sort of quiet efforts that Republicans are undergoing right now to go after black voters, particularly in kind of rural areas. But you’re seeing nothing like that to try to go after particularly white men.
It’s just been, the administration has just been really quiet on it, but there’s been no almost no outreach as well. And again too, I think it’s, it just points back to this general sense of cautiousness. I think particularly on economic stuff, you’re getting a kind of similar problem that Obama fell into at the end of his term, and that Clinton ran into when she was running in 2016, which was that, they were running on the economic success.
And by any objective measure, the economies tend to do much better under Democrats than Republicans going back several decades now. And they’re trying to tout this, but they didn’t have a message for people who were being left behind in the economy that they had helped build.
And they weren’t trying hard enough to reach those voters. Obama did a very good job on this when he was running for president in 2008, particularly when he was running for the nomination. But since then, there’s just been a real unwillingness to acknowledge the fact that, even if the broad indicators, like unemployment is the 3.6% right now, are pretty good, a lot of people are not having a good time.
And I mean, that’s especially true given these inflationary numbers, but the fact that the party doesn’t have a message about this at all, I think it’s really showing through in this, that that the perception, I think quite rightly is that– and especially it’s especially rightly when Democrats are pushing the fact that, oh, this is a great economy and we’re doing so well, is that the people who are doing really well in this economy are people [00:42:00] who work at banks or on Wall Street and that’s not true for everyone.
They often get caught in that kind of trap. And one of the reasons why Trump was successful in 2016 is he was out there. I mean, he was lying about unemployment numbers and other things, but he was out there saying these people are lying to you. They’re telling you that you’re not struggling. And I know that you are, and I’m the only person who will tell you the truth about this.
SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm . I think you did hit on something though that the 2020 Biden, it’s almost like he learned nothing from his own victory.
SHEFFIELD: Because in 2020 he ran on ‘Republican extremism is out of control and a threat to this country.’ And then he also ran on ‘we need to unify and have an America that works for everyone.’
Those were kind of his two main messages, but since he became president, you never hear them. And they worked for him, but it’s like they learned nothing from their own victory.
It’s very weird. But Trump kind of did the same thing as well. Because I mean Trump’s 2016 campaign in a lot of ways was actually, he was running to Hillary Clinton’s left on a bunch of issues. Like he was the first Republican to ever talk about how maybe he would support the raising the minimum wage and he talked about ‘I’m going to have healthcare for everyone, and I like Canada’s healthcare system, and Scotland, where they have the National Health Service as part of Great Britain.’
And he was going to raise taxes on big banks and close the carried interest loophole. So he actually made a number of leftish campaign promises.
And of course he didn’t keep them. But he still made them and he learned nothing from what enabled him to beat the other Republicans. And he kind of got captured by them. Like with this stupid Obamacare repeal thing, they actually were saved by the filibuster from that, because if they had repealed Obamacare, that would’ve kicked out 15 million people from health insurance and you can bet they would’ve voted.
SHEPHARD: Yeah, I think that that’s exactly right. And I think there was another thing too, which is probably undercovered here, and I think that this may explain some of this gap, which is that the premise of Biden’s campaign in 2020 [00:44:00] was really that he was the one person who could normalize normalize American politics and that he could restore the sense that we were off the roller coaster of the Trump years. And that he would be a kind of just sort of quiet and unassuming guy.
‘He’s not going to be tweeting at 4:00 AM.’ That was the thing you heard over and over again, ‘no 4:00 AM tweets.’ and when he started governing, that was largely the approach that they took.
There was a kind of the sort of quiet competence of the vaccine rollout, right? That Biden wasn’t going around saying, ‘I did this, this was me.’
It was just, ‘I’m just sitting back, we’re going to pass this stimulus bill. We’re going to get the vaccines out.’ And I think that they sort of thought that they were going to get credit for that.
And then when things started to happen, it’s not an accident really, but you know, the poll numbers start to dip during the Afghanistan rollout, even though that was something that Biden had long promised to do. And I think in general, and with hindsight, there’s certainly elements of it that could have been handled better, but I don’t know how much more that they really could have done.
But that was the first moment of reality intervening really. And now from there, you have Omicron, you have the war in Ukraine, you have inflation, you have a series of mass death events. You have the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And I think that the administration didn’t, and I think still has not recognized, the fact that at some point you just have to get out in front and do politics.
That you have to go out and do stuff. And you have to say that you understand that these bad things are happening, or at least show some form of attention. And that that’s really, I think, where they’ve been caught up is that they’re sort of worried that foregrounding anything that they do, even if it’s positive, will be a betrayal of their promise to “de-Trumpify” American politics.
Or to go out and say, ‘Hey, the Republican party is theocratic and authoritarian.’ They don’t want to do that either because they’re worried that it undermines the premise of Biden’s candidacy.
And I think there’s a sense where they are kind of being pulled in all these different directions. And so whenever a crisis happens, [00:46:00] if it isn’t something that Biden doesn’t already care a great deal about, like for instance, the invasion of Ukraine, then it’s just kind of ‘well, let’s just wait and see, and maybe voters will just sort of figure out intuitively that the Republican party is evil.’
I think one of the reasons why the administration did nothing about Roe was that they looked around and said: ‘You know what? This could be good for us. The political situation here is pretty bad. Roe in particular is popular, but in general, attitudes towards abortion changed, have shifted in our direction. Let’s just take the “W.” We don’t have to do anything about it. We don’t have to show anything.’
And you see this with Kate Beddingfield’s comments about the left is that what they’re most terrified of is seeming like they’re progressives. And they’re like, ‘If we say anything about this, we’re just going to be treated, like we’re politicizing something, whereas we’re just standing with choice and decency and where the majority of Americans are and then they just don’t do anything.
SHEFFIELD: To be fair to them, this was kind of the Democratic approach. Long before Biden, this was something that you had in the Obama administration, they had their filibuster proof majority at one point and significant Senate majority, and did not try to codify Roe or do anything like that. And none of the Democratic dominated states passed trigger laws about abortion from the other side.
So at the same time though, there are some Democratic politicians outside of the Beltway who are trying to makes some efforts to say, ‘look, there are things that we can do here under these frameworks that the Republican Supreme court has made.’ So like Gavin Newsom has just recently unveiled an effort to go after gun manufacturers using the exact same protocols that Republicans are using to go after abortion. Some people seem to be learning, but there’s a real concern. I think that this institutionalism cannot save institutions.
SHEFFIELD: That’s really what it takes. Or really the situation.
SHEPHARD: Well, I think again too, you have to make assertive cases for things. And you have to prove, too, that the institutions themselves are worth saving. These are not things that are happening in a [00:48:00] vacuum. The institutions that we’re trying to protect are worth saving for some reason, and not just because they were created by the founding fathers or whatever.
And that’s the kind of thing that, that you’ve been missing here or that we’ve been missing here. And I think that, that people recognize this. They’re looking around and they’re paying $5 for gas and seeing constitutional rights eroding, and COVID, people are getting COVID still.
I think all of these things formed to this larger sense of pessimism that this guy came in with a promise of restoring a sense of order or at least of the sense of responsibility and candor in crisis. This is not somebody who’s going to be throwing out paper towels to people who have just had their homes destroyed in a hurricane.
And instead, what you’ve gotten, I think, is somebody who, as these kind of crises have piled up, is increasingly backed away out of fear of either saying the wrong thing or taking too much responsibility for it, or just being attacked on the right.
And meanwhile, the various factions within the Democratic Congress have just kind of ground to a sort of stalemate. And this larger sense of inertia, both legislatively, but I think also in terms of the administration’s messaging and its response to these issues, really just started to become this kind of vicious cycle where they don’t do anything out of fear of taking political damage, but they’re taking political damage because they’re not doing anything.
SHEFFIELD: At the same time, to some degree, their hunch on the polls beginning to turn around in their favor, it may be correct. As you mentioned, the New York Times and Sienna college came out with a poll that showed basically an effective tie on the generic congressional ballot. And that was a big uptick for Democrats.
But the long term trend is that you can’t just tell people, vote, vote, vote, and then not tell them why they should.
Because basically what they’ve done, the Democratic big donor groups, they actually spent more money in 2020 than the Republican ones. But they spent almost all their money on voter registration stuff.
And the problem is that if your efforts are only about getting people to register and to vote, but you [00:50:00] don’t explain why they should continue to do that, basically, all you’ve done is created another bunch of people who will vote one time and then never vote again, because they feel like they had been lied to, or given false promises .
SHEPHARD: Yeah. I think you’re seeing some history repeating too. Because I think, as you mentioned, the generic ballot in the most recent Times-Sienna poll had Republicans with a one point advantage 41 to 40 with 19% undecided. And that’s fine. And that’s generally pretty good for this point in the year, but you tend not to see these huge gaps emerge later in the summer, earlier in the fall.
So it’s like fairly common for at least generic ballot to say within a point or two, at least up until June and you can already see a lot of people within the Democratic party being like, ‘Hey, just give us a chance. It’s starting to turn around now, that tide’s starting to turn.’
And they might be right, because this 10 year old who was raped and nearly had to have a child, and now we’re getting into the question of prosecution for the doctor who is involved. These stories are certainly not going to go away. They’re horrific. They’re also the kinds of things that I think this version of the Republican party has no message for, because their message so far is ‘Yeah, she should have the child.’
And you’re seeing this with Texas is challenging. Biden released– one of the parts of the executive action was essentially saying that people who need to have abortions to save their life, you can’t deny them. That law is being challenged in Texas. These are the kinds of things that, it sounds grotesque to say, that at least illustrate the extremism of the Republican party in ways that Democrats themselves are often loath to bring up themselves.
Whether that has a political impact or not, I think it still remains to be seen or what the sort of shock waves of Roe are going to be we’ll have to see.
But I think that Democrats at least have started to feel a little more comfortable bringing up this aspect of Republican extremism and that is happening at the same time as the January 6th hearings, which I think have also been pretty effective of at least showcasing the culpability of Donald Trump in all of this.
That, that does point to something [00:52:00] that Democrats haven’t had. You look at like the 2010 midterms which were disaster for Democrats, they were all just fighting over Obamacare right up until the middle portion, or at least for most of that year.
And then just had to deal with all these town halls about that. It’s not an affirmative case, because they can’t really point to a lot of stuff that they’ve done. Whereas at least in 2010 Democrats could say, ‘well, you don’t know what it is yet, but Obamacare will be good for you.’
But they can, they do, have a much stronger negative message than they’ve had in a while.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, I guess last topic here before we wrap up is Donald Trump 2024. The odds are that he will be running again because it will be easier to defend himself from a criminal indictment. That’s what I would guess. And that he will say that ‘they’re trying to stop my candidacy by indicting me and so therefore you have to stop that and vote for me, et cetera.’
That’s what it seems like it’s headed. But at the same time, I do think at the January 6th hearings, because they’ve been exclusively Republican witnesses almost without exception, it has had some residual effect on more institutional Republicans. Everybody had kind of a little tiny shard of a picture of how crazy things were in the Trump White House. But now, people who they personally know as smart and reliable people are telling them, yes, he did all these awful things and many other ones you’ve never heard of.
And so it’s making some of them think, ‘well, you know what, maybe we don’t need him. Maybe we can go for Ron DeSantis.’ And Elon Musk, the newly minted Republican, certainly one of those. So what’s your take on all that?
SHEPHARD: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s the question of, I was actually just writing all this before we recorded and talking to people about it, but you know, the question of when Trump throws his hat into the ring is interesting, because I think it’s, there are two things, right?
One is the fear of a criminal indictment or just in general, I think, a recognition that he’s taken damage from the way that these hearings have gone. And that he’ll want to announce just so, as you said, that he can say that this [00:54:00] is a political witch hunt.
I think that the DeSantis rise is also freaking him and people close to him out. And I think there’s also a fear that DeSantis will throw his hat in the ring early and then get the kind of free media bump that will inevitably come with that of people then saying ‘Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis.’
That will probably happen regardless of when he goes in, but I think, DeSantis, there’s some game theory about what DeSantis does next that we don’t need to get into. So I think those are the sort of two things that he’s obsessing over.
I do think the question of if there will be a criminal referral is also sort of interesting, because (Attorney General Merrick) Garland has been very slow on all of these investigations. I think there’s a lot of tension between the DOJ and the committee right now.
And that we’ll see how that plays out, because I think also there’s a sense, one of the ways that Biden is sort of pushing back against the kind of bad polling stuff is to say ‘ I want to whip Donald Trump again.’ And I do think that there is a sense that the party is making some of the same mistakes that it did in 2016. There’s a fear of DeSantis, because they see him as a kind of Youngkin-like figure and that they say, ‘Well, Donald Trump, he’s taken a lot of damage, let’s just run against him again in 2024.’
So yeah, those are the sort of variables at this point. What the lingering effects of the January 6th hearings are going to be really will be fascinating to see. They’ve widened out some, but they are so focused on Donald Trump himself that there was hope, at least when they started, that they might create some sort of longer term political bump for the party.
I’m not entirely sure that’s the case, because so far they have not really gone to focus on the numerous Republican members of the House of Representatives who spoke at or appeared at the Stop the Steal rally. They, they have not gotten into the fact that nearly 200 House Republicans voted to not certify the 2020 presidential election.
So the environment there is going to be quite an interesting one. But I think as you said, Trump’s big fear at this point is criminal referral. He also, I think, wants to be able to cast himself as the victim of all this. And it’s, in fact, his strength is a candidate, that’s why they’re throwing everything that they have at him. And the best [00:56:00] armor for him to deal with both of those things, both his political exposure and his criminal exposure, is to declare himself a presidential candidate sooner rather than later.
And he is also, as we know, impatient to do this, he wanted to declare himself a candidate last August.
SHEPHARD: And was only barely talked out of it.
SHEFFIELD: Well, and actually he, sorry, just, he, he actually declared for reelection the very day he took office.
SHEFFIELD: That had never, ever happened in the history of America, that the president, the sitting president declared literally the first day he took office.
SHEPHARD: Yeah. It’ll be a shame, but the hearings themselves have been really the only successful thing that that Democrats have done this year, I mean, with some help from a couple of Republicans, they’ve been effective, right?
I mean, you, as you mentioned, it’s not a huge number, but there’s been a shift, I think, in the 10% range among Republicans and acknowledging the truth of what happened on January 6th as a direct result of these. That’s something that doesn’t really happen in our super polarized, negative partisanship world.
And yet, and yet, I should say whenever they do literally anything in one of these hearings, they get flooded with new information that is damning.
And when they started, I remember saying to somebody, ‘this isn’t Watergate.’ When the Watergate hearing started, nobody knew what Nixon knew or when he knew it, we basically know the answers to most of the big questions here. We know what Donald Trump was trying to do. We know why he was trying to do it. We know most of how he was trying to do it, with some big question marks, but there’s nothing that can emerge from that really makes a huge difference.
And yet what they have shown, again and again with increasing clarity, is exactly just how laser focused he was on overturning an election. That everyone around him knew that he lost. And that I think is really starting to have a difference.
And yet Benny Thompson who’s the chair of this committee and, I’m sure, Nancy Pelosi and other members of Democratic leadership, they’ve been really reluctant to keep going.
At first they really only wanted to have six hearings. I think there’s a lot of division within Democratic leadership just how long that these should run for. I think there’s a [00:58:00] real fear that at some point, there’s like a kind of loss aversion that’s setting in where they’re saying, ‘Okay, well, we’re getting a lot of political benefit from this right now, but you know, if we take it too far, then people are going to accuse us of politicizing this or doing it to win in the midterms.’
And that lack of appetite has really started to show in the last two weeks. And I find it pretty concerning because, I think that they’re making a pretty forceful case, but also they’re still uncovering a lot of new information. Even just today, it was just reported that the Secret Service members were erasing texts from that day. That’s pretty crucial, this is information that should be in the public record.
This committee is the best and probably only way that we’re going to really drill down on exactly what happened on that day. So Democrats can’t lose the political will to keep fighting.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that’s right. Alright, well, I appreciate you being here today, Alex. We’re talking with Alex Shephard of the New Republic and he’s on Twitter at alex_shephard, that’s S H E P A R D
SHEPHARD: Spelled the hard way.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. So please do check Alex out over there. And of course you can get him on New Republic.com as well. Thanks for being here.
SHEPHARD: Thanks for having me.
SHEFFIELD: All right, so that’s our program for today. Thank you for watching or listening. And just wanted to remind everybody again that we are part of the Flux.community network here at Theory of Change. So, you can please visit us flux.community for lots of articles, podcasts, and other things looking at bigger trends in politics, media, religion, and technology.
So with that, I will thank you for joining us again. And I hope to see you next time.