Democratic Worries Spike
Can Joe possibly pull it off again?
One Friday morning in November, a handful of Joe Biden’s top aides gathered in a Sheraton conference room in Chicago. Alumni of Barack Obama’s first presidential bid had descended on the city to celebrate the 15th anniversary of his 2008 victory, and now, after a night of partying, more than 100 of them had rolled out of bed to hear the Biden campaign’s leaders detail the effort to get the president a second term.
The audience had reason to be skeptical about 2024, even panicky. The president is old, hobbled by the aftereffects of a big spike in inflation, buffeted by two wars, and starting to trail in polls against an opponent whose grip on the Republican Party seems stronger than ever. An off-cycle Election Day was looming after the weekend. At the Sheraton, the Biden team unveiled a version of the presentation it had been giving to nervous Democrats around the country. Campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez described how Biden’s accomplishments, like drug-pricing reform, poll well — at least once voters are reminded of the details. Becca Siegel, a senior adviser, spoke about how Biden has a few promising paths to 270 votes in the Electoral College.
The Obama veterans (many of whom also worked for the 2012 campaign and know a bit about reelecting unpopular incumbents) were looking for reassurance. Some were sated, but others were itching for more substance. They pressed the Biden aides for details. How might third-party candidates affect youth turnout? What’s your precise understanding of how to reach voters with inscrutable media-consumption habits? Toward the end of the session, Siegel told the room that the election was going to be close no matter what they did. The Sheraton fell silent as she reminded the group that in November 2020, only 45,000 votes in a few states had kept Donald Trump from a second term.
It was, in the words of one Democrat present, an “Oh God moment.” These operatives hadn’t expected to learn about some silver-bullet master plan to vanquish Trump once and for all. Still, more than one told me they couldn’t shake the feeling that for a sophisticated crowd, what they were hearing — the high-level outline of the Biden plan — felt obvious. Another thought the Bidenites were starting to come across as “absurdly defensive.” One somewhat sideways best-case interpretation came from a former senior Obama strategist: Maybe the Biden aides didn’t feel it was the proper venue for a deeper dive precisely because they were facing so many the-sky-is-falling questions — a rationale of “I don’t need to be with all these fucking smart-asses telling me I’m doing everything wrong.” Whatever the reason, even Obama alums who thought the briefing went well felt they still had little grasp on the exact plan to address Biden’s two biggest problems: his age — he’s 81 — and higher prices.
Biden’s election brain trust, in the White House and in the campaign, project that they are unconcerned about Biden’s current standing and dismiss recent polls—including a Wall Street Journal survey that showed former President Donald Trump leading Biden by 4 percentage points—as insignificant a year out from the election. They say Biden has often been underestimated by his own party and has, in recent years at least, defied expectations.
They repeat a line that Biden favors: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” The team believes that when voters are comparing Biden to Trump—particularly on issues such as abortion and Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election—the current president will have the edge.
The White House touted news of an improving economy on Friday. “Recent data certainly gives us more evidence that the width of the runway for a soft landing has gotten much bigger,” said Lael Brainard, the National Economic Council director, on a call with reporters in which she focused on consistently low unemployment numbers, a decrease in the rate of inflation, and wage growth.
Republicans have continued to hammer Biden over inflation and said Democrats were out of touch in suggesting that regular people would feel the economy improving.
The past week illustrated some of the structural issues the president faces. His agenda has to make it through a GOP-controlled House of Representatives, the chamber that voted Wednesday to authorize an impeachment inquiry into the president.
On the same day, his son Hunter Biden thumbed his nose at Congress by failing to testify before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, defying a subpoena to appear in a private meeting for a transcribed interview. The younger Biden instead gave remarks outside the Capitol, reiterating that he was willing to testify in a public hearing but didn’t want to answer questions behind closed doors out of a concern that his remarks would be cherry-picked by Republicans and used against him unfairly.
The effort by the younger Biden put the White House in an awkward position. President Biden has sought to highlight the importance of the rule of law, but his spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre repeatedly declined to answer questions Wednesday about whether Biden believes Americans should comply with congressional subpoenas.
So far, efforts to impeach Biden haven’t revealed evidence that Biden financially benefited from his family’s business enterprises, but various committees have shown details about the extent to which relatives leaned on the Biden family name to make millions of dollars. Testimony has shown that Biden talked and met with his son’s business partners.
While Democratic lawmakers voted unanimously against authorizing the impeachment inquiry, many of them are nervous about Biden’s political standing heading into an election year when they will also be on the ballot.
Jeff Roe Spends Money and Sucks Wind
“I can’t believe it ended this way,” Jeff Roe posted on X, announcing his resignation from the pro-DeSantis super PAC and pinning the blame on a statement the group’s new head gave to The Washington Post hours earlier.
Roe’s departure felt inevitable: He’d recently fought with the newly-minted chairman and interim CEO Scott Wagner, and the super PAC’s addition of Phil Cox was seen by those close to the group as another nail in his coffin. Under Roe’s leadership, Never Back Down had fallen out of favor with many in the Ron DeSantis orbit — including the governor’s inner circle — who were frustrated by a myriad of consistent issues.
“While DeSantis campaigns tirelessly, Jeff Roe has spent a fortune, and the team has nothing to show for it. Not one relevant metric has improved, even as Roe’s spending soared,” one person in DeSantis’ orbit recently told Semafor.
The slow churn of top PAC staff dragged a damaging process story on for nearly a month, just as more early state voters were tuning into the race. What started with the pre-Thanksgiving exit of NBD’s CEO ended 24 days later with Roe’s resignation.
Never Back Down was formed on March 9, spending on TV ads and direct mail to Iowa Republicans weeks before DeSantis entered the race. Its bus carried DeSantis over much of his 99-county tour, but its mistakes blew up in the candidate’s face.
One ad faked a dramatic image of jets flying over DeSantis; another used AI to fake Trump’s voice. Right before the first primary debate, the PAC put polling and strategy memos online for donors, ripping them down after the New York Times published the contents.
The Meaning of Javier Milei
Libertarian economist Javier Milei’s smashing landslide victory is the most radical thing to happen to Argentina in decades. But his win portends more than just a free-market revolution on the pampas. It’s just the latest example of a trend we’ve been seeing for decades: the triumph of blue-collar conservative fusionist populism.
Milei is routinely portrayed in the western press as an Argentine Trump with crazy economic policies. There’s some truth to that. His rallies sometimes involve pyrotechnics and he brandishes sputtering chainsaws to symbolically deliver the message that he will take apart the system that impoverishes Argentines. He has called for the elimination of the national bank, and even takes a bat to bash a piñata in the shape of the bank in televised birthday celebrations. He’s also a known devotee of anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard. No wonder he’s given establishment types left and right the willies.
But that’s just a variation on the formula that blue-collar conservative populists have been using worldwide for years. Successful rightist populists are always atypical figures with a penchant for dramatics and a flair for rhetoric. That’s as true for Britain’s Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, architects of Brexit, as it is for Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Her name means “melons” in Italian, and in the run-up to the 2022 election she showed up in a TikTok video holding two melons in front of her chest. It’s not Shakespeare, but her voters loved it.
Nor do Milei’s extreme policy recommendations hurt his appeal. Populists essentially run against an establishment that has repeatedly and utterly failed to deliver on its promises. The Perónists Milei crushed in November had been the leading force in Argentine politics since General Juan Perón seized power in 1943. They were responsible for the endless cycle of growth, hyperinflation and recession that is depressingly normal there. Center-right governments elected since the return to democracy in 1983 hadn’t been able to change the country’s course. Under these circumstances, it was probably more plausible to the nation’s suffering citizens to argue to abolish the Argentine peso in favor of the dollar than it would have been to counsel conventional conservative economics.
That combination alone might have been enough to bring Milei to power. But he added a cultural element that dismayed many libertarian purists. He is staunchly pro-life, something that still holds appeal in a historically Catholic nation that only legalized abortion in 2020. He also pledges to abolish the new ministry of women, gender and diversity. Cultural conservatives upset at recent trends could back Milei every bit as much as people yearning to stop Argentina’s economic decline.
Populist-conservative election wins always display the same patterns: High income, well-educated areas that historically lean right vote left, while blue-collar, less-educated places that historically lean left swing right. That’s what happened in Brexit and in Boris Johnson’s landslide 2019 victory, in Donald Trump’s 2016 surprise, and even in Australia’s recent referendum on whether to amend the Constitution to give the country’s indigenous population a vaguely conceived “voice to parliament.”
Some elite conservatives simply don’t want change even if that means backing their former opponents. They are usually outweighed by the many non-elite voters who want change so much they will switch sides to get it.
Milei’s win exemplifies this pattern. Perónists have typically won in the post-1983 era by carrying the blue-collar suburbs surrounding the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires, and running up the score in the country’s poor rural regions. Traditional conservatives carry the big cities like Buenos Aires and Córdoba but lose the countryside even when they eke out an occasional win, like Mauricio Macri did in the 2015 presidential election.
Milei shattered this model by winning nearly every rural province along with the cities. He ran twenty points ahead of Macri’s 2015 showing in San Juan and eighteen ahead in Chabut. He topped Macri’s margins by ten points or more in nine of the fourteen rural regions that Macri had lost and beat him by at least four points in each one.
His margins in Macri’s strongholds, on the other hand, were not as strong. He ran nearly eight points behind Macri in Buenos Aires City and did even worse in the most upscale parts of the city, communes 13 and 14. He beat Macri by less than half a point in suburban Buenos Aires and won Córdoba province by only three points more than Macri in 2015. Those three regions cast more than 50 percent of the nation’s votes and are the home to most of its elites. Clearly many traditional conservative elites who backed their party’s candidate in the first round defected to their traditional enemies in the second.
This result simply upends everything we know about Argentine politics. Non-Perónists had only won three presidential elections since 1983, none with more than 51.75 percent. Milei’s near 56 percent has smashed Perónism’s foundation, its support of the common man, to bits.
Items of Interest
“Vote, v. The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.”
— Ambrose Bierce