Category Archives: U.S. politics

Legislative implications of the Georgia Senate Election results

Democrats very likely win both Georgia Senate seats, resulting in a 50-50 Democratic-Republican balance in the U.S. Senate, with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote, making Chuck Schumer the very likely new Senate Majority Leader.

This means Schumer gets to decide what legislation comes to the floor of the Senate (just as Mitch McConnell has for the past several congressional cycles) BUT the Senate filibuster remains, meaning that McConnell (or any other Senator) may require 60 votes (not 50) for anything to be voted on. So Republicans can still stop anything they want, legislatively.

Senate Democrats could, in theory, eliminate the legislative filibuster if they get 50 votes to do so (with Harris’s tie-breaking vote), but there are several Senate Democrats who have previously said that they oppose abolishing the filibuster. So this probably won’t happen, although those Senators might change their minds in the future.

The way that Senate Dems might try to get legislation passed is through the “reconciliation” process that, by law, is not subject to filibuster rules and thus requiring only 50 votes + Harris’s VP tie-breaking vote. This can be used for anything related to the budget, taxation, spending, etc., and in recent years has been used expansively (example: it’s how the Affordable Care Act was ultimately passed through the Senate).

As far as the federal judiciary goes, Democrats eliminated the filibuster on lower-level judicial nominees during Obama’s presidency and Republicans eliminated the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees during Trump’s presidency. So as long as all 50 Democrats are united in support of a judicial nominee for Supreme Court (or any other judicial nominee) OR can get a combination of 50 Democratic and Republican votes, they can pass whatever Court nominees they like.

It’s also important to note that a president’s political party almost always loses seats in both the House and the Senate in midterm elections. Given that reality, the most likely outcome is that Republicans win both the House and the Senate in the 2022 midterms, stopping any of Biden’s legislative agenda and judicial appointments. Thus, Biden has a realistic window of about 12-18 months to pass any of his legislative agenda or make any judicial appointments.

Kamala Harris has an edge in the Veepstakes, according to political science research


The 2020 Democratic “Veepstakes” is now officially underway. Given that Biden often refers to himself as a “transitional” candidate, his choice of vice president is all the more important given that his running mate will be seen by many as the “heir apparent” to succeed him as president a stronger degree than is normally the case. Also, if elected Joe Biden will be the oldest president ever to assume office and Social Security actuarial tables say that he has roughly a 1 in 4 chance of not making it to the end of his first term in office (so to speak) which may affect his decision to run for a second term in office. So who will Biden choose as his running mate?

Political scientist Jody Baumgartner has studied the vice presidency selection process at length. Looking at veep choices since 1960, he found that there are five key factors that tend to predict who “wins the Veepstakes” from the initial shortlists for both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates alike:

  1. High media exposure: all other things being equal, those who are more prominent and visible in the media for a year or more before the nominating conventions tend to be tapped as a running mate.
  2. Previous experience in the federal government by way of the Senate, House of Representatives, or other federal-level appointment.
  3. Military experience tends to give potential candidates a boost.
  4. Age: all other things being equal, younger veep candidates tend to have an edge over older candidates.
  5. Gender/racial/ethnic balance: if the presidential nominee is a white male of northwestern European ancestry, veep candidates who are not one of those three things tend to have an edge (and vice versa).

All together, Baumgartner found that these five factors reliably predicted vice presidential selections about 70% of the time from 1960-2016.

What is surprising from Baumgartner’s analysis is what does not tend to consistently predict someone getting the vice presidential pick, given how often these factors are brought up by media pundits: candidates who will provide geographic balance or are from a what is considered to be a “swing state” in hopes of delivering the state’s electoral votes. Similarly, veep nominees tend to come from smaller and larger states alike and are no more likely than not to have had state-level government experience (governor, state legislature, etc.). They also tend to be about as likely as not to be among the presidential nominee’s competitors in the primary, and the idea of “ideological balance” makes a different about as often as it doesn’t.

How does Biden’s shortlist this year stack up against these five key factors? I looked at the six shortlist candidates most frequently brought up over the past month: Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Val Demings, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and former state Rep. Stacey Abrams.


Harris Klobuchar Warren Demings Whitmer Abrams
New York Times mentions 01/01/2019-05/29/2020 1583 1415 3574 241 347 244
Prior service in Senate/House/other federal appt Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Military experience? No No No No No No
Age 55 60 70 63 48 46
Gender balance? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Racial/ethnic balance? Yes No(?) No(?) Yes No Yes


Biden has pledged that his vice president will be a woman and none of the leading candidates have military experience, so all six candidates are equal on those two factors.

Stacey Abrams has a clear edge when it comes to her age and adding racial/ethnic balance to the ticket but has no federal government service experience and relatively low media visibility compared to some of the other candidates.

Gretchen Whitmer’s only key advantage (in terms of Baumgartner’s factors described above) is that she is younger than most of the other candidates, but also lacks federal government service and does not add racial/ethnic balance to the ticket.

Val Demings has an edge when it comes to adding racial/ethnic balance to the ticket and she has previous federal government experience. She is also the least visible of the six candidates here, at least as measured by NYT media mentions.

Elizabeth Warren has a strong edge when it comes to visibility and prior federal government experience. Her DNA test showing some Native American ancestry notwithstanding, she is no longer emphasizing a non-white ancestry and so wouldn’t balance the ticket in that respect. She’s also older than the other five candidates by at least ten years.

Amy Klobuchar is about middle of the pack on these factors: she has previous federal government experience and is younger than some of the candidates but older than others as well. She has a high-ish level of media mentions/visibility. According to Baumgartner’s research, “racial/ethnic” balance is defined as not being of “northwest European” ancestry, so technically Klobuchar’s Slovenian ancestry would qualify, but similar to Elizabeth Warren, this is not something she is emphasizing and so likely would not boost her chances here.

On balance, Kamala Harris seems to fit Baumgartner’s veep selection model the best of these six candidates. She has relatively high visibility/media mentions, she has previous federal government experience, she’s a notch younger than the average age of the six candidates, and adds clear racial/ethnic balance to the ticket.

It’s interesting to note that the strongest candidates, according to Baumgartner’s model, are the same as are currently leading the betting markets: Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Comparing the two, Warren has the edge when it comes to visibility but Harris has the edge when it comes to age and racial/ethnic ticket balancing.

Given these considerations, I’d say that Harris has about a two-in-three chance of getting the nod as Joe Biden’s running mate this year, and perhaps even odds of being the  Democratic presidential nominee in 2024 given Joe Biden’s advancing age.

Strategic voting in a presidential primary after a presumptive nominee is selected

So for those who haven’t still voted in the spring primary presidential election, how are you all thinking about the voting choice?
At this point both parties have presumptive nominees and that very, very, very likely will not change regardless of whom we cast our vote for. How does that factor into your voting choice?

National convention delegates are allocated both state-wide and by congressional district. A candidate has to get 15% of the vote either state-wide or in a district to get a delegate to go to the convention. In Kentucky where I live, Biden is projected to get about 2/3 of the vote in Kentucky and Sanders 1/3 of the vote, so they’re likely the only two to get delegates from Kentucky.
One option is to vote for either Biden or Sanders, regardless of who your original preference was. This way you get a voice in sending delegates to the convention who generally correspond to your vision of the direction you’d like the Democratic Party to go over the next four years (as delegates help write the platform and rules).
Another option is to vote for whoever was your original preferences (if not Biden or Sanders) with the idea that a higher popular vote (even if no delegates) corresponds to more visibility and sends a signal to Biden about which candidates/platforms were popular, and potentially also popularity as a potential VP pick or cabinet position nominee.
National convention delegates are allocated on a winner-take-all basis. Whoever wins the most wins all of the delegates. The two options on the ballot in Kentucky will be Trump and “uncommitted.”
For most Republicans the obvious choice is to vote for Trump as he’s the only candidate on the ballot.
For the few Republicans that are dissatisfied with the way that Trump has changed the Republican Party over the last 4 years, do they vote for “uncommitted” on principle even though “uncommitted” will almost certainly not get any delegates? Or is this worth it to rack up the “uncommitted” vote just to send a message?

How are you all thinking about this? What factors are relevant to your primary vote now that the nominees are set?

The “Revolution” will probably not help Bernie Sanders win the General Election. It might even hurt.


One of the most common arguments in favor of the nomination of Senator Bernie Sanders as this year’s Democratic presidential candidate is that he gets people excited, especially younger voters, and that this will result in a “Revolution” of voter excitement and participation that will sweep him and like-minded Congressional candidates into the White House.

As a Bayesian thinker, I will allow that this outcome is possible, but very, very improbable. This is why.

First, Sanders’ key base right now includes younger Millennials and GenZ voters (with whom Sanders did very, very well in the Nevada primary). Based on this, the argument is that Sanders can motivate younger voters to turnout at higher rates than in previous elections.

Consider this chart of voter turnout since 1984 by age:


For decades, people under age 30 consistently show up at low, low rates in both midterm and presidential election years. Sanders is arguing that his charisma and revolutionary appeal will be enough to suddenly boost turnout among young people to historic highs. Is that possible? Sure. Is it probable? I don’t think so.

Observe that in 2008, where there was a young, charismatic Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama on the ballot. Young voters indeed turned out at higher rates than in previous elections, but not much more so than was the case with older voters.

In general, turnout in the aggregate between age groups is remarkably consistent from election to election, regardless of the candidates on the ballot.

Second, one could argue that turnout has been so consistent because Bernie Sanders, with his unique charisma and revolutionary appeal, has never before been on a national presidential candidate before. This is true. At the same time, he ran a nation-wide primary campaign in 2016 against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. How did turnout do in 2016?


Voter participation in the 2016 managed to excite roughly 14% of eligible voters to participate: lower than the 20% who participated in 2008 between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In fact, participation in 2016 was roughly average for Democratic primary voters compared to the last few decades.

Bernie Sanders is arguing that his presence on the ballot will produce the Revolution that will turn out voters in droves. The last time he was on the ballot for a presidential primary election, however, turnout was… roughly average. On what basis should we predict, then, that this presence on the general election ballot will increase turnout beyond what is usually the case?

Third, an extremely detailed analysis of voter preferences recently examined potential trade-offs between nominating Bernie Sanders vs. Joe Biden. As would be expected, most Democrats will vote for the Democratic candidate no matter who it is. That said, there were some differences in their coalitions of support:


Sanders does better than Biden specifically among younger voters and perhaps a teensy bit better among lower-income voters. Biden does better among older, wealthier, and better-educated voters.

Decades of voting patterns have consistently shown that older voters and those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds vote regularly and at rates much, much higher than younger voters and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Given this reality, the evidence seems to suggest that, if anything, a Sanders nomination would likely result in somewhat lower turnout than would be the case with another generic Democratic nominee.

(Now, I would be the first to cheer higher turnout rates among younger voters. Given that they consistently choose not to show up on Election Day, year in and year out, decade in and decade out, I’m not holding my breath that a Sanders candidacy will suddenly change the basic patterns of the American political universe.)


Generally speaking, the results of U.S. presidential elections tend to track pretty closely with prevailing economic and domestic conditions and turnout remains remarkably consistent election to election. So, if the economy and other conditions are in bad shape, any Democrat (including Sanders) will probably win the fall. If, however, the economy is booming this summer and Trump maintains his 45%-ish approval rating, he’ll probably be reelected comfortably regardless of whoever the Democrats nominate.

All indicators right now, though, point to a very, very close election this fall, which means that it might make a difference who the Democrats nominate in terms of this year’s general election outcome.

In that case, nominating Sanders is a gamble. Having him on the ballot in the general election will very likely not result in a voter turnout Revolution that will sweep him and other like-minded Democratic Socialists into the White House.

If anything, his nomination might produce a slightly lower level of turnout in the general election than other Democratic nominees (because his core base of younger voters tend consistently to vote at lower rates than just about every other voter demographic).

There are times when political parties have the luxury to take a gamble. Given the stakes of this year’s presidential election, this is not one of them.

Alexander Hamilton’s Constitutional Convention Speech: paraphrased and modernized

For my January 2020 course I took the liberty of paraphrasing Alexander Hamilton’s constitutional convention speech of June 18, 1787 so as to be more readable to a modern audience. The paraphrase as an approximate 8th-grade readability level.


Hamilton convention speech paraphrased modernized 01-19-2020


Ranking the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Round 3


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore,

This is the third in my series of 2020 Democratic candidate rankings. The first is here and the second is here

From my previous post:

A reminder that my personal preferences lead me to prioritize candidates who: 1) have strong foreign policy expertise/experience and recognize global democratic backsliding as one of the most alarming international trends of the current moment, 2) display a nuanced approached to analyzing complex issues, 3) eschew populism, both right-wing nationalist/racial populism and left-wing economic populism, 4) have previous electoral experience and a background that helps understand the life experiences of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and 5) have a realistic “plan of action” for enacting a policy agenda that takes into account the reality that they have to pass stuff through Congress, which is hard. (More detail on each of these is available in my earlier post.)

I fully admit I’m a pragmatist. As a scholar who studies American politics, I tend to favor incremental but achievable progress over pie-in-the-sky idealism that has almost zero chance of actually becoming political policy based on the bottom-line realities of the current American political system.

I’m limiting my ranking to the seven who qualified for the December debate. Otherwise I’d include Cory Booker and Julian Castro on the same tier as Amy Klobuchar. I’m also disappointed that Kamala Harris had to drop out. Otherwise she’d still be my #1.


1. Amy Klobuchar

  • PRO: she has a realistic set of expectations about what is and what is not achievable as U.S. president and focuses on the things that she would likely be able to achieve. She emphasizes the importance of democratic institutions like the freedom of the press and NATO. She would be a highly-visible and honorable role model to young women and girls around the world.
  • CON: she has almost zero foreign policy experience, which is problematic because presidents have much more ability to influence American foreign policy than domestic policy.


2. Pete Buttigieg

  • PRO: as I’ve written about previously, he’s one of the only ones who seems to have a more accurate diagnosis of the causes of dysfunction in the American political system: the way we organize our political and electoral systems. He’s a deep thinker with strong training in data analytics and has served the United States honorably as a military veteran.
  • CON: for Democrats to win in 2020 they’ll need to mobilize Latinos, blacks, and other racial/ethnic minorities to turn out. So far Mayor Pete is not showing much evidence that he can effectively connect with these constituencies.


3. Joe Biden

  • PRO: he unquestionably has, by far, the most extensive foreign policy experience of any of the candidates and would be a strong voice against democratic backsliding in the global community. Also, the fact that he enjoys strong support among the African-American community counts for a lot.
  • CON: as I’ve said before, he’s the wrong candidate for the #MeToo era. Also, if he becomes the nominee, his son’s connections with Ukraine will be Hillary Clinton’s emails, but on steroids. And while he’s served the United States honorably as a U.S. senator and vice president, his performance in debates and other public settings suggests that he’s slowing down a little. The presidency requires being able to make snap decisions several times a day for several years on very little sleep. What will his abilities be in five years? 


4. Elizabeth Warren

  • PRO: she’s smart as hell, she sweats the details, does not suffer fools easily, and is a policy-wonk. Like Klobuchar, she would be a highly-visible and honorable role model to young women and girls around the world.
  • CON: In brief, I disagree with her principal diagnoses and recommended solutions to America’s most pressing issues and am wary of her populist rhetoric and “fight fire with fire” approach to political change if elected.
  • A lengthy treatment of my thoughts on Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy is here.


5. Andrew Yang

  • PRO: like Elizabeth Warren, he’s smart and engaging and sweats the policy details. 
  • CON: what’s his plan to get any of his plans through Congress?


6. Tom Steyer

  • PRO: he’s a better option than Bernie Sanders.
  • CON: Why in the world is he on the stage? Because he has a lot of money and that’s about it.


7. Bernie Sanders

  • PRO: he’s less of a risk to American democratic institutions and norms than Donald Trump.
  • CON: the “revolution” isn’t happening, and thus neither is his agenda.

Kentucky exit poll suggests more warning signs for Mitch McConnell than for Donald Trump in the aftermath of Tuesday’s gubernatorial election


There has been no small amount of punditry this week on what implications, if any, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s narrow loss to Democratic challenger Andy Beshear might have for President Trump or Senator McConnell in 2020 next year.

Some have argued that Bevin’s loss was “a smack at both Mitch McConnell and the president, sending up a cautionary note” while others have said that Bevin’s loss “tells us nothing about McConnell’s chances in 2020.”

The 2019 Collaborative Kentucky Exit Poll (CKEP) surveyed nearly 4,000 voters in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election. The results offer some clues into what Bevin’s loss might mean for 2020 for both Trump and McConnell.

President Trump

Partisan identity is the strongest and most consistent predictor of presidential voting patterns in modern American elections. The CKEP survey showed that Republicans (and Republican leaners) made up about 53% of Kentucky voters in this Tuesday’s election. The survey also showed that 88% of Kentucky Republicans say that they have a very/somewhat favorable view of Trump as well as roughly half of Kentucky Independents (who made up about 6% of all voters). If these patterns hold through next year, Trump is on track to win roughly 55% of the vote next year, give or take.

But what about the Kentucky Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for Andy Beshear last week? The CKEP survey showed that one in six Republicans (16%) voted for Beshear. Given the similarities of their campaigns and the governing styles of Trump and Bevin, would those same 16% be persuadable to vote for a Democrat for president in 2020?

Not necessarily. It turns out that Trump has a 55% favorability rating among those Republicans who voted for Democrat Andy Beshear for governor. Among that same group, only 42% view Biden favorably and 34% view Warren favorably.

Does favorability, though, translate into voting? The Boyle County portion of the KCEP asked voters whether they believed that various elected officials deserved reelection or whether it was time to give someone else a shot. Among Boyle County voters, 92% of those who view Trump favorably believe he deserves reelection compared to only 5% among those who view him unfavorably. So it’s fairly safe to assume that for President Trump, favorability and intention to vote are virtually interchangeable.

Let’s say roughly half of the Republican-Beshear voters (8% of all voters in Kentucky voters on Tuesday) who have an unfavorable view of Trump (45% of them) defect to the Democratic candidate in 2020. That’d put Trump somewhere around 51%-52%. This is definitely close, but still enough to win the state.

The bigger takeaway, in my view, is that Kentucky voters did not end up linking their views of Donald Trump and Matt Bevin in Tuesday’s election as strongly as either of them had intended and hoped for.

Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be running for reelection as Kentucky’s senior senator next year. The CKEP survey revealed that McConnell is not as popular as Donald Trump in his own home state. McConnell is viewed either somewhat or very favorably by 46% of Kentucky voters on Tuesday compared to 55% who say the same about President Trump.

Also, the link between favorability, partisanship, and reelection is a little weaker for Mitch McConnell than it is for Donald Trump.

For example, McConnell enjoys only about a 74% favorability rating among Kentucky Republican/leaners, 44% among Independents, and 11% among Democrats/leaners. Also, when we drill down into opinions on reelection among Boyle County voters specifically, a full 19% of those who view McConnell favorably think he should not be reelected. Also, one full third (31%) of Boyle County Republican/leaners think he should not be reelected.

As far as the link between attitudes toward McConnell and Trump, only 81% of those who view Trump favorably see McConnell favorably while 92% of those who view Trump unfavorably also view McConnell unfavorably.

Looking again at those Republican-Beshear voters which made up about 8% of the electorate on Tuesday, McConnell has a 62% unfavorability rating. If that same group is willing to cross party lines again next year (emphasis: a big ‘if’!), that’s potentially 10% of Kentucky Republicans (or 5% of everyone who voted this past Tuesday) who might be persuadable to support a Democrat in next year’s Kentucky senate race.

Of course, the odds are still in McConnell’s favor given that Kentucky is a red state and that he outperformed the October polls by about 6% in his last Senate race in 2014. It’s still an uphill battle for any Democrat looking to take on the nation’s Senate Majority Leader.

At the same time, McConnell’s support among Republicans and those who approve of President Trump is weaker than he would prefer going into an election year. Kentucky Democrats will be strongly motivated to knock him out and will likely turn out en masse to vote against President Trump as well in 2020.

This suggests that one good strategy for Kentucky Democrats might be to focus their efforts on the 16% of Republicans who were willing to cross party lines to vote for Beshear last week. The CKEP survey showed that nearly two in five of these (38%) were under age 40. It may be a smart move for the eventual Democratic nominee to focus his or her appeal on Kentucky’s younger voters.

The pros and cons of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential candidacy: a reassessment


[ Photo credit Greg Skidmore]


TL;DR – I have been somewhat cautious about Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign in the past because of some of her positions and political rhetoric, so I did my homework. After doing my homework, I think my caution was mostly misplaced. I do, however, continue to have differences with her diagnosis of the cause of America’s major political and economic problems and I disagree with her use of populist rhetoric in her campaigning and political style. That said, she is a talented, smart, and passionate public servant whom I would gladly support against Donald Trump should she win the 2020 Democratic nomination.


While much can change between now and the Iowa Caucuses next January, as of right now Elizabeth Warren has roughly as good a shot as Joe Biden of winning the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. I will admit that I have eyed Warren’s candidacy with some degree of caution, as her rhetorical style a fair amount of anti-elite economic populism, and I am wary of populism and populists, especially given the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

That said, populism (a political style that pits a good, virtuous people against an immoral elite of some kind) is not a binary: politicians can run the scale from exhibiting a small amount of populism here and there all the way all the way to a Stalinist “elites are the enemy of the people”-type populism. Given Warren’s reasonable chance of becoming the 2020 nominee, I recently made an effort to give Warren’s candidacy a fair shake and as much of an objective assessment as I could, reading two biographies of Warren and listening to several hours of one-on-one podcast interviews with her. This is what I learned.



Elizabeth Warren’s life story is impressive. She went to law school at a time when it was hard to do that as a woman and she did it while raising small kids. Her academic career and research led her to study bankruptcy, thinking it would confirm her early-life worldview that those who declare bankruptcy are morally lacking and mooching off the system. Instead, she found that the data and evidence showed very much the opposite, and she changed her political and societal views accordingly. This is an important cognitive skill that we all could use more of in our lives and especially could use more of from our political leaders.

Then, she spent much of her political career looking to put her research knowledge to use by working to address what she perceived to be the causes of the systems that led to those bankruptcies in society, as well as economic inequality more broadly.

Example: her proposal to give corporate employees control over 40% of the seats on the boards of directors that govern the institutions they work for (“codetermination”) is a cool idea. Research shows that countries that adopt some form of this type of corporate governance tend to also have higher wages for workers and lower levels of economic inequality in their societies.

Elizabeth Warren is smart, talented, and a workhorse. She’s a badass who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She knows what it’s like to be working parent of small kids. She was a talented and distinguished law professor. Her presidency would serve as an excellent and empowering model to young women and girls both in the U.S. and around the world. She would represent America honorably on the world stage and use her platform to address the very real and important issues of economic inequality and wage stagnation for the middle class.



The causes of economic inequality

Warren’s explanation of the current state of economic inequality in the U.S. goes something like this: at key moments when government policies have been made that affect levels of economic opportunity and inequality, elected officials chose to enact policies that favor the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless because they had been “bought” by campaign donations from powerful interest groups, lobbyists, and special interests. The solution, as she sees it, is to “stand up” to the influence and power of the special interests, thereby freeing policy-makers to pursue policies that benefit the majority.

As best as I can make sense of the research on the causes and consequences of economic inequality in contemporary American society and its relationship to the political process, Elizabeth Warren’s explanation is partially, but likely not entirely (or even mostly) correct. Instead, wider structural factors over the last half-century including globalization, industrial automation, and to a smaller extent technological innovation are among primary culprits for widening levels of economic inequality in American society.

These trends have of course been exacerbated by deliberate policy choices that have weakened labor unions and restructured tax codes in ways more favorable to those with higher income levels, but it’s not at all a foregone conclusion that economic inequality would not have grown over the last several decades in the absence of the influence of lobbyists and interest groups. We’d still have the wider forces of globalization, automation, and technological innovation at work.

If a President Warren is going to be effective at addressing economic inequality, her policy prescriptions will need to address much more than simply limiting the influence of lobbyists and the wealthy donor class on public policy.

Political change and the influence of lobbyists

This same explanation accounts for Warren’s theory of political change. For example, in a recent NPR interview, Warren was asked why meaningful gun control legislation has not been passed in recent years despite overwhelming public support for such measures. Her answer was that the NRA has bought off members of Congress with its campaign donations, and thus members of Congress listen to the NRA above their own voters who want these policies.

My best explanation would go something more like this: members of Congress of course pay attention to donors, but the best political science research tends to show that money can indeed by access to and attention from lawmakers, but not necessarily votes. Instead, most members of Congress (who are from safe electorally lopsided districts) pay most attention to the vocal members of their partisan primary constituencies because they are most worried about being primaried out by a more ideologically extreme/pure challenger. Republican primary voters care about gun rights. And it’s not because they’re bought off by the NRA, but because they believe strongly in an expansive interpretation of the 2nd amendment. These people show up to vote in primary elections and they care about gun rights, and so members of Congress from red states and districts tend to vote against restrictions on owning, buying, selling, and operating guns because voters who feel the same way control their electoral fates.

Take the NRA out of the equation entirely, and you’d still very likely have massive pressure from partisan constituencies who care strongly about this issue. Having a president who “stands up to the NRA” (as she promises to do) likely wouldn’t move the needle much in terms of congressional incentives to support gun control legislation.

Democratic norms and the legislative process

Recognizing these electoral and institutional constraints, Elizabeth Warren is now advocating for the elimination of the Senate filibuster so as to be able to pass all legislation with a simple majority.

On this point, I agree with her. (I say this someone who, as part of a U.S. Senate simulation as an undergraduate, argued passionately in favor of the sacred rights of senators to filibuster. I changed my mind somewhere around 2014.) I support the elimination of the filibuster so as to enable majorities to govern and to increase accountability on the majority party to govern effectively (they can’t blame a Senate minority for poor governance if the minority can no longer block the majority from enacting its program). I support the elimination of the filibuster going forward, regardless of whether “my side” is in control or not.

When you hear Elizabeth Warren advocate for abolishing the filibuster, though, you hear a different rationale: “This business that Democrats play by one set of rules and Republicans play by a different set of rules — those days are over when I’m president. We’re not doing that anymore.” What she means is that under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans have tended to put the exercise of political power ahead of respect for the norms of democratic governance that hold a liberal democracy together.

On this point, I still agree with her: McConnell’s complete lack of regard for democratic norms of reciprocity and fair play are egregious and shameful. Where I disagree is on how to respond. She’s saying “if they’re going to play dirty, than so are we.” I worry that this will continue to hasten the arms race of political power, continuing to raise the stakes of the outcome of each election which will further incentivize abandoning democratic norms in favor of securing political power (example: Merrick Garland). This is not a recipe to ensure the long-term health or stability of our political system.

The use of populist rhetoric

When Elizabeth Warren talks about lobbyists, special interests, and the donor class, she says over and over again that they’re “corrupt.” I’ll admit that I’m wary of the use of this word, because in an international political context “corruption” usually refers to politicians or other authority figures taking cash bribes in exchange for granting political favors. It is true, though, that “corrupt” can also simply mean “unfair” or “distorted” which is what I think she means: that the system unfairly benefits the wealthy at the expense of the middle- and lower-class. When she accuses politicians and interest groups of being “corrupt,” though, it’s not unreasonable for listeners to infer an accusation of lawbreaking and other illegal activity.

This matters because it’s a common strategy for populists. Example: Donald Trump has repeatedly said that he lost the popular vote in 2016 only because millions of illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton or that the electoral system is “rigged” against him (something Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common). Accusing lobbyists of “corruption” (whether you agree with their positions or not) for exercising their first amendment rights to freedom of speech and association is, to me, a gesture in the same direction (although not near as egregious) as when Donald Trump says that the news media is a purveyor of “fake news” and therefore is “the enemy of the people.”

This rhetorical populism also targets other Americans. At her town hall meetings, Warren often focuses her rhetoric on the wealthy and super-rich, accusing them of selfishly hoarding their wealth at the expense of the less fortunate. She talks derisively about the people with vacation homes and yachts and says that she’s going to pay for her expansion of welfare state programs (universal child care and health insurance, etc.) by enacting a “wealth tax” on the net worth of the wealthiest vacation home and yacht owners.

Now, I want to be clear that support proportionately higher levels of taxes on those more fortunate to support the provision of services like education and healthcare to those less fortunate in an effort to broaden opportunity and prosperity for all. This can be done, though, in ways that do not rhetorically demonize those who are being taxed at higher rates.

When Elizabeth Warren casts rhetorical dispersions on the wealthy, making them out to be antagonists against the good, virtuous middle- and lower-classes, this is populism. Rhetorically, it’s the same political style that Donald Trump uses (although again, not near as egregious) when he makes straight-up racist comments against immigrants and Muslims, making them out to be the enemy of the good, virtuous white, Christians. When populist leaders are able to convince a majority of the people that another group of people are corrupt or threatening, they are more easily able to infringe upon the rights of those minority groups (whether the wealthy or the immigrants or the Muslims, etc.) to boost their popularity among the masses.



I tend disagree with Elizabeth Warren about the causes of economic inequality in U.S. society and as well as her view of the effect of lobbyists on the American political system and political change. Those are honest differences of opinion, though, and I fully appreciate Warren’s efforts to apply her understanding of the world to make meaningful change, as I hope we would all do.

I am wary of Elizabeth Warren’s comfort with “fighting fire with fire” when it comes to responding to recent Republican efforts to weaken democratic norms and institutions in the pursuit of policy outcomes. I am wary of the populist notes she inserts into her stump speeches. I understand and sympathize with much of the motivation, but I do not support such political styles and strategies becoming the “new normal” in the United States, as neither is conducive maintaining a strong and vibrant liberal democracy.

As I said at the outset, though, these characteristics do not exist in a binary but rather in matters of degree. In my estimation, if we were to put someone like Vice President Biden on one end of the spectrum around a 1 and President Trump on the other end of the spectrum around a 10 in terms of populism and disrespect for democratic norms and institutions, I’d put someone like Elizabeth Warren around a 3-ish. She’s not actively trying to sow doubt in the institutions of the news media, the judiciary, NATO (as Donald Trump has done), or even capitalist democracy (she goes to great length to assure us that “I’m a capitalist to my bones” and her record supports this). She’s not actively calling for a ban on travel of all wealthy people to the United States (like Trump did with Muslims, and tried very hard to follow through on, achieving some degree of success with his travel ban).

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, I’d rank around a 6 or a 7. He’s actively disparaging the “1%” and the “billionaire class.” He’s taken to criticizing the free news media. He calls for a “revolution” of the people substantially reform the political and economic institutions of the United States. He is a populist through and through. Elizabeth Warren is nowhere near as far along this spectrum as Bernie Sanders, who I am on record of actively opposing for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Therefore, if the primary election were held today, Elizabeth Warren would perhaps not be my first choice for the reasons outlined above. That said, should she win the nomination for president in 2020, I will gladly support her candidacy. She has not “crossed the line” of populism or the delegitimization of our political institutions the same way that Trump or Sanders have. The risk to democratic norms and institutions from a President Elizabeth Warren is low, and much, much lower than from a President Bernie Sanders or a re-elected President Donald Trump. And the potential for her to enact meaningful change in American public policy about the issues she cares about is pretty good (assuming, of course, that the Democrats win the Senate – odds are currently low – and the Senate nukes the filibuster. If not…?)



Ranking the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Round 2

Two months ago I published my first 2020 Democratic candidate rankings. Not a whole lot has changed in the primary race since then, so neither have my preference rankings. Nonetheless, here is my update.

A reminder that my personal preferences lead me to prioritize candidates who: 1) have strong foreign policy expertise/experience and recognize global democratic backsliding as one of the most alarming international trends of the current moment, 2) display a nuanced approached to analyzing complex issues, 3) eschew populism, both right-wing nationalist/racial populism and left-wing economic populism, 4) have previous electoral experience and a background that helps understand the life experiences of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and 5) have a realistic “plan of action” for enacting a policy agenda that takes into account the reality that they have to pass stuff through Congress, which is hard. (More detail on each of these is available in my earlier post.)

I’ll add as well that the current Democratic activist electorate seems to generally fall into one of two camps: 1) those who see economic inequality and the influence of lobbyists and “special interests” as the key barrier to enacting a meaningful legislative agenda and 2) those who see political polarization and electoral/institutional constraints as the key barrier to enacting a meaningful legislative agenda.

While I am persuaded that both of these matter, my academic training and experience has strongly persuaded me that political polarization and institutional constraints account for far more of the legislative paralysis and political dysfunction that we see in the federal government today than the influence of “corrupt special interests” on lawmakers. Fixing political polarization and institutions that distort democratic outcomes will enable the government to better address economic inequality (which is, to some extent, policy-solvable), while the reverse is less true.

In these rankings I am also limiting my candidates to those who have qualified for the second debate (with a polling average of at least 2% and a broad donor base). I’ll also pretend that I get to use ranked-choice voting, and show how they’ve moved since last time.

For most of these candidates, the rationales for my rankings remain the same, so please refer to the earlier post for more context and explanation of the pros/cons of each (from my perspective). I added a few notes based on things that have happened over the last few months.


1. Kamala Harris

  • While her first debate attack on Joe Biden was perhaps not entirely fair on the substance, it suggested to me that she’s smart and strategic, willing to make gutsy decisions when needed. She’s playing “go big or go home.”

2. Pete Buttigieg (↑ 1)

  • He is the only one consistently talking about institutional and electoral institutions. This suggests to me that he has the best lens to diagnose problems in American society and what tool would be the best to try to address them. It’s not an exciting topic, but it’s the most important one. See Ezra Klein’s write-up on this topic here. He’s also someone who is doing an effective job of speaking about what it’s like to live in the U.S. as someone from a marginalized group but also does a good job of speak to white working-class voters in a way that validates their life experience as well. This is an important skill for U.S. presidents.

3. Cory Booker (↓ 1)

4. Amy Klobuchar

5. Joe Biden

  • He is the only one I hear consistently discussing how President Trump’s rhetoric weakens democratic institutions and norms and emboldens dictators around the world to weaken their own democratic institutions and abuse human rights. Every candidate should be talking about this all the time.

6. Elizabeth Warren

  • I would rank her higher, but her diagnosis of the problems of American society (corrupt special interests) simply doesn’t match up with what I understand to be the more powerful barriers toward meaningful policy enactment (see above).

7. Andrew Yang (new!)

8. Beto O’Rourke (↓ 1)

9. Bernie Sanders (↓ 2)



That all said, the only person I’d hesitate before enthusiastically endorsing for the 2020 Democratic nomination would be Bernie Sanders. I am extremely wary of the Democratic party going down the path of tepidly-illiberal economic populism to try to beat Donald Trump’s enthusiastically-illiberal nationalist/racial populism. A Sanders-Trump match-up in 2020 for the U.S. Presidency signals to the world that populism has won.




My reactions to the July 31, 2019 Democratic primary debates (night 2 of 2)

I blogged yesterday about how most of the candidates promised the moon without a realistic plan to enact their proposals given the existence of Congress, the likelihood that Republicans will keep the Senate, and the existence of the filibuster. Many of the candidates (except Jay Inslee notably) did the same thing tonight, so I’ll refer you to that.

Instead, I tried to use tonight to watch for what we can learn from how the candidates answer the questions. What do the candidates reveal about how they perform under pressure, how they frame policy to elicit support from different constituencies, and their thinking styles (complex/nuanced vs. simple/binary), all of which are important governing skills, from how they answer questions about political policy.

On the whole, some of my various thoughts were:

  • In general, Joe Biden kept his cool and didn’t get flustered in the face of frequent frontal attacks from other candidates. He’s had a lifetime of practicing political exchanges and debates, and I think it came through tonight. He did a good job criticizing people’s records while treating them civilly as human beings. And he was more subdued than I would have expected. It makes me wonder how he’d debate Donald Trump if he gets the nomination and frame his campaign messaging to appeal to the Obama-Trump voters that he’d try to win back.
  • Kamala Harris had some strong moments and weaker moments. She got flustered and nervous when talking about health care, but she was confident and strong when talking about civil rights and criminal justice, as would be expected given her previous experience and policy expertise.
  • Julian Castro is smart and his answers suggest (to me, at least) an evidence-based, nuanced approach to politics and governing. His Latin America Marshall Plan is brilliant and his housing plan is admirable. His comments on the political ramifications of beginning impeachment hearings against Trump were spot on. It’s a shame he’s not getting more attention.
  • Cory Booker did about as well as I expected. He has strong answers to some questions and is a bit undisciplined on others. I don’t know that he’ll have much movement as a result of this debate.
  • Kirsten Gillibrand, Jay Inslee, Andrew Yang, and (to my surprise, I’ll admit) Tulsi Gabbard all did perfectly well, but I don’t know that any of them did anything that will help them be on the debate stage in September when the requirements are tightened up a bit.

On the whole, the candidates on the stage tonight were, on average, stronger than those on the stage yesterday (with the exception maybe of Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren). I agree with this take by Jennifer Victor:


Also, check out these informal candidate placement schemas by some of the writers at FiveThirtyEight that graph the various candidates along a left-vs-right ideological spectrum and an establishment-vs-insurgent/outsider spectrum: