Sunday, November 15, 2020

Sunday Reading

Learning From Mom — Sue Halpern in The New Yorker about what she learned about voting from her mother (and it sounds very familiar).

Five years ago, when my mother was in her late eighties, she volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. Most days, she drove twenty minutes to an office park in Virginia Beach and made phone calls for four or five hours at a stretch. Hillary was her candidate—not because she was a woman on track to make history (my mother isn’t sentimental that way) but because years before, when Clinton was considering a run for the Senate, my mother heard her speak at a fund-raising dinner and was impressed by her intelligence, humor, and, yes, warmth. My husband, a 2016 Bernie surrogate, could not persuade her to change her allegiance. She was “all in for Hillary.”

The 2016 campaign marked a turning point for my mother: it was the first in decades in which she did not go door to door, urging strangers to vote for whichever candidate she happened to be supporting. (One year, that candidate was my uncle, a progressive Democrat, who was running a quixotic campaign for Congress in a conservative Republican district in New York. Needless to say, he lost.) She said she was finally too old to be a door knocker, a task that she was very good at because, over the years, she had acquired the ability to talk to anyone, anywhere. Still, her biggest campaign triumph was pulling up at a rally in suburban Connecticut, where we lived at the time, with a huge Jimmy Carter sign atop her Oldsmobile 88, and getting a shout-out from the actor Paul Newman. This was in 1976. It probably kept her campaigning for the next forty years.

Both my parents were dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, members of a local activist group pushing for reforms in the Party, but they recognized that American democracy did not work without a loyal opposition, and they sometimes voted for Republicans. The polarization that now characterizes our shared political life had not yet taken hold, and the concept of a moderate Republican was not anathema to either the Republican Party or liberal Democrats. Our corner of Connecticut was represented—and represented well—by two such Republicans, Lowell Weicker, in the Senate, and Stewart McKinney, in the House. They, and their fellow-travellers, had some gravitational pull in their party, and that was a good thing.

When I turned eighteen, I registered to vote as a Democrat. Then I wrote to Representative McKinney and told him I’d done that, and asked for a summer job. He brought me on as an assistant to his press secretary. And, although that experience cured me of any desire to work on the Hill, it was a hands-on education in the political give-and-take necessary to meet the needs of constituents. Today, as we watch Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory and encourage spurious claims of voter fraud; when we hear reports that McConnell, if he retains his leadership position, will block Biden’s Cabinet appointees if he deems them too radical; and when only four sitting Republican senators have reached across the aisle to congratulate the President-elect, we are seeing irrefutable evidence that McConnell’s Republican Party has little interest in governing. It is difficult to see how a two-party system works when the animating ideology of one of them is nihilism. Actually, that’s not true. We have empirical evidence from the past four years: it works nominally, but that is all. Unfortunately, democratic norms are not automatically revived by the election of a Democratic President, though it’s a start.

On November 8, 2016, my mother went to the Clinton campaign office for her last shift. The Times she read that day with her morning coffee calculated that Hillary had an eighty-five-per-cent chance of winning the Presidency. (The paper likened her chance of losing to an N.F.L. kicker missing a thirty-seven-yard field goal.) Everyone in the office was giddy, my mother told me when she got home that afternoon. The young people she’d worked alongside for months urged her to come back that evening for a watch party and victory celebration. “I’m not going,” she said. “He’s going to win.” At the time, I thought that she was hedging her bets so as not to jinx it. But, for months, she’d been telling me that most of the young and middle-aged women she was calling (and who she assumed were white) told her that they were voting for Trump, or at least that they would not be voting for Clinton. “I don’t get it,” she often said, but, on the night that those sentiments mattered, she did get it. She stayed home, and watched Trump glide into office.

My mother is a first-generation American. Both her parents came to this country from Europe, at the turn of the last century. She was born a year before the Great Depression and came of age during the Second World War. Hers was the generation that planted victory gardens, bought war bonds, and sent loved ones abroad to fight Nazism and fascism. They had a more visceral understanding of what was at stake in 2020 than many of us did. They had seen men like Trump before. The idea that their lives would be bookended by racist, authoritarian strongmen was almost unbearable. (Though Trump still carried seniors nationally, a post-election report from the Brookings Institution notes that there was “less Republican support among older segments of the population” than in 2016; among white people aged forty-five to sixty-four, support for Trump fell nine percentage points from 2016. There were no exit polls of nonagenarians, as far as I can tell.)

The pandemic—and Trump’s politicization of public health—meant that we could not be with my mother to celebrate her birthday, and that she could not attend her granddaughter’s wedding. Her book group went on hiatus, her mah-jongg crew was sidelined, and the municipal gym where she walked the track most mornings shut down. The isolation has been extreme, but she’s not complaining, nor are her friends. I suspect that their youth prepared them for behaving in the public interest. Their generation may be the last with a lived experience of comity, though the mutual-aid groups spawned by the pandemic may yet turn out to be instructive to the rest of us. When I posted, on Twitter, that my ninety-two-year-old mother had waited two hours to cast a ballot during Virginia’s early voting, the tweet received more than forty-four thousand likes. The overriding comments were of thanks.

Many people cast this election as the most consequential of their lives. They said that they were voting for the future—for their children and grandchildren, for the health of the planet, for the survival of democracy. But, for those of us with relatives and friends of a certain age, we were also voting for them.

Georgia On My Mind — John Nichols and Joan Walsh in The Nation on the January run-off elections that could determine the future of Joe Biden’s presidency.

As he prepared to claim the presidential victory he secured by more than 4 million votes, Joe Biden said, “What is becoming clearer each hour is that record numbers of Americans—from all races, faiths, regions—chose change over more of the same.” But his ability to deliver that change is still to be determined by the voters of Georgia.

Because the Democrats did not gain control of the US Senate on November 3, the defining moment for Biden’s presidency will come January 5, when a pair of runoff elections in Georgia could displace GOP incumbents and position Vice President–elect Kamala Harris to end Republican Mitch McConnell’s destructive tenure as Senate majority leader.

The Georgia runoffs give the Democrats a rare opportunity to finish the essential work of elections in which they fell short. The 2020 fight was always about more than defeating Donald Trump. McConnell had to be displaced, or Biden would serve as a virtual lame duck struggling to achieve incremental change with executive orders, tepid appointments, and a constrained agenda.

While Biden prevailed, the bid for Senate control stumbled. Instead of the net gain of four seats that they needed, Democrats beat Republican incumbents only in Arizona and Colorado, while Democratic Senator Doug Jones lost in Alabama. So many vulnerable Republican incumbents survived that it looked as if McConnell and the GOP could hang on to power with a 52-48 advantage.

There was plenty of blame to go around for what was clearly a disappointing result. Progressives complained that Biden ran a campaign so narrowly focused on upending Trump that it never developed the urgent issue agenda that could inspire full-ticket Democratic voting. But it was not just that. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put their thumbs on the scales for uninspired centrists who then disappointed. The most frustrating example was in the race against McConnell in Kentucky, where DC insiders favored Amy McGrath in the primary over Charles Booker, a legislator who had a far better plan for building an urban-rural Hood to the Holler movement in the state. Nearly $90 million was poured into McGrath’s campaign, yet she won just over 38 percent of the vote—not even 3 percentage points better than Tennessee progressive Marquita Bradshaw, whose insurgent Senate bid got little attention from DC Democrats.

Democratic strategists must get better at mounting coherent national campaigns that develop an issue-driven identity for the party. They must also learn to respect the wisdom of grassroots Democrats in the states rather than impose candidates from above. But political blame laying is of value only if it provides lessons for getting it right the next time. Luckily for the Democrats, the next time is now.

Georgia can prevent McConnell from becoming the grim reaper of Biden’s presidency. That’s because, unlike most states, Georgia holds runoff elections when no candidate receives a majority of the votes in the initial balloting. The state held two Senate contests this year: a regular race for the seat held by Republican incumbent David Perdue and a special election for the seat held by Kelly Loeffler, an extreme right-wing Republican who was appointed in 2019. It was immediately clear that the Rev. Raphael Warnock had finished ahead of Loeffler in a multicandidate contest and would face her again in a runoff. In Perdue’s race, the initial count had him finishing above the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff with Democrat Jon Ossoff. But things turned Ossoff’s way in the same tabulation of absentee ballots that put Biden ahead in the state. Perdue dropped to 49.7 percent, and the Democrat declared, “We have all the momentum.” There are still hurdles for Ossoff. Perdue is likely to demand a recount in the hope of clawing his way over the 50 percent threshold. But recounts rarely work.

So this is the time for everyone who wants to see a successful Biden presidency to go all in for Warnock and Ossoff. Georgia is deep into a process of political transformation, thanks to demographic shifts and the remarkable voter mobilization work of Stacey Abrams and a new generation of multiracial, multiethnic grassroots activists.

Warnock and Ossoff are different candidates who have run distinct campaigns. Yet it’s likely they will rise or fall together in what could well be the most expensive Senate competition in American history. Loeffler is reputedly the richest politician on Capitol Hill, Perdue is a multimillionaire, and McConnell will steer every special-interest dollar he can find into Georgia. That money will fund vicious campaigning. In the run-up to the November elections, Perdue mounted attacks on Ossoff, who is Jewish, that were widely condemned as anti-Semitic. Loeffler is already signaling that she’ll attack Warnock, who is running to become Georgia’s first Black senator, for what she labels “his radical policies and his agenda.”

But these Democrats bring strengths to the competition. Ossoff, who built name recognition and fundraising prowess with a high-profile 2017 bid in suburban Atlanta’s Sixth Congressional District, shredded Perdue in a late-October debate. Ossoff still has high support in the Sixth, where he narrowly lost in 2017 but African-American gun-control activist Lucy McBath won in 2018 and 2020. Warnock, the senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., finished ahead of Loeffler, thanks to an urban-rural coalition with a proven capacity to mobilize voters. Former president Barack Obama has already campaigned for the Georgia Democrats, reminding an Atlanta crowd just before the November 3 elections, “You’ve got the chance to flip two Senate seats.”

Abrams agrees. She dismisses the notion that runoffs disadvantage Democrats just because the big top-of-the-ticket races are settled. “We will have the investment and the resources that have never followed our runoffs in Georgia for Democrats,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper. Ossoff and Warnock “are going to make certain that Joe Biden has the leadership, the support, and the congressional mandate that he needs to move this country forward.”

Ossoff told The Nation recently that his mentor Representative John Lewis, who died in July, urged him to work to revive the Black-Jewish electoral coalition that made major gains in Georgia in the 1960s and ’70s. Ossoff and Warnock, running as a ticket, could be precisely the team the Democrats need in 2021—working to win two races in Georgia and prevent McConnell from obstructing another Democratic presidency.

Doonesbury — Art Smart.

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