A. B. Stoddard is one of the country’s sharpest and best informed political commentators. A former congressional reporter and producer of ABC World News Tonight, as well as a current columnist for RealClearPolitics, she has seen politics from the inside and up close since the 1990s. And when she warns that both parties, and the country, are in a dark place as the 2022 and 2024 elections approach, we should listen.
In this interview, A. B. Stoddard talks about her experiences as a woman in the male-dominated news business, her view of how Congress has slid into dysfunction in recent decades, and her assessment of how Donald Trump was able to take over the Republican Party and jettison its loyalty to Ronald Reagan and his once-revered brand of conservatism. She analyzes the Democrats’ stumbles in their attempts to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework and the Build Back Better Plan, the tensions between the party’s moderate and progressive factions, and the breakdown of the Democratic establishment’s control over the legislative process. She also speculates about why the Democratic leadership has failed to grapple with the growing threat of election-nullification efforts by state Republican legislatures and the growing potential for political violence in upcoming elections.
A. B. Stoddard: I grew up in a time where you could not go two days without hearing an ode to the greatness of Ronald Reagan. You cannot raise the name of Ronald Reagan now in the Republican Party, in MAGA world, or you would be written off immediately as a sellout RINO traitor.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m especially pleased to be able to welcome A. B. Stoddard to the podcast. A. B. is a frequent media commentator and a columnist at RealClearPolitics. She’s a former congressional reporter and columnist at The Hill, a former producer of ABC World News Tonight, and a frequent participant in TV news and politics panels. And she is, in my opinion and that of many others, one of the nation’s sharpest, most insightful, and most even-handed analysts of politics. So welcome, A. B., it’s really a pleasure and an honor to be able to talk with you today.
A. B. Stoddard: Oh, Geoff, the honor and pleasure is mine. I’m really thrilled to be here.
Geoff Kabaservice: So I usually ask people a fairly standard question at the beginning of these discussions, and that is where did you come from and what path did you take that led you to the work that you do now?
A. B. Stoddard: Well, I am from New York City. My whole family is from Connecticut — my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins — and so I spent a lot of time there growing up and ended up going to Connecticut College in New London. I had wanted to be a journalist, though, from the time I was probably 14, 13. I knew I wanted to join the high school paper, and I did, and then I was the editor of the high school paper. And then I did the same thing in college, I joined the paper and then I ended up editing the magazine. And I worked hard to find good internships and jobs in the summer in the business to build some understanding and get some experience and meet people. And I managed to do that, which was really great because I think it’s really hard. I didn’t obviously get paid, and I think kids today think that internships are going to be paid. But I really had wonderful experiences doing that.
And so I just knew when I left school, when I left college, that that was the path I was going to take —and with great certainty. And so I doggedly pursued that. I think back on that and wonder how I was so convinced that this is what I must do. But I do have a memory of being romanced by the news business and reporting early on, just simply because every day was different and you would meet different people and hear different stories. And particularly before I got into politics, I just loved feature writing. I just loved being off on a different path, finding different slices of life all the time, no matter how goofy. And so I really enjoyed it, it held my attention, and I’ve always enjoyed writing. So that’s how I ended up in the business.
The interesting thing was when I was out at a small paper in Prince William County, Virginia doing that (after other jobs sorting mail and stuff like that), finally with my own byline and doing some interesting long-term projects in addition to the day-to-day, I watched the Clarence Thomas hearings. And that was really… I don’t have a lot of out-of-the-movies clarifying moments in my life that I can look back on, and that is one of them where I was so riveted that I decided right then and there I just had to cover Congress, and I have ever since. And that was a long time ago.
Geoff Kabaservice: And how did you move from reportage into opinion-writing, and what does it take to actually make a good opinion writer? And I ask this because this is a question I keep asking myself, of course.
A. B. Stoddard: I still can’t really believe that I do this, and I don’t know what qualifies me to do this. But I do know that I was really blessed to have the opportunity to meet great reporters of the Congress who did commentary and columns. Two of the most important ones (who were my friends) were Mary McGrory when I was first starting out and then later Cokie Roberts, who covered the Congress and the politics of Washington every day to inform their opinions and opinion-giving. And so my columns have always been heavy (probably at many times too heavy and too loaded) with facts, because that’s how I come to it. I don’t think I am qualified enough to share an opinion until I show you all the facts that inform it.
And so I’m very uncomfortable just myself… Although I enjoy those columns that are heavy on opinion, I just could never… I’m not a faker. And when I’m invited on shows where the panels extend out of politics into culture, I always say no and say I’m just not a good fit. And I’m not going to fake that. That’s for the kids or other people. But really I only like to weigh in on what I know. And in columns, I always feel a burden to show the reader how I got to that opinion. Now that I’m not confined by 600 words, which I was in my print days, I go long and I go hard into my arguments with a lot of data and facts because I think that just makes my argument more credible. And I really do look back at those influences of columnists and commentators I knew who were covering the daily — the hourly sometimes — in-and-outs of what the battles were to make sure that they were really well informed when they opined.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s interesting you mentioned Mary McGrory, because she and Meg Greenfield I think were real pioneers as women in the political coverage, particularly at the Washington Post. And I wonder what have been the advantages and disadvantages, if any, for you as a woman in the political reporting and commentating business?
A. B. Stoddard: Well, it was definitely, very much a man’s world (and a white man’s world) in the newsrooms that I came of age in and worked in, there’s no question. I mean, there are more disadvantages, I believe, than advantages. It’s hard to become a mother of three children in the news business, as I did, and to manage that I. And I had twins and then 22 months later another, so I had three children in three years and was running a zoo. I think it’s hard, when you don’t work with and for a lot of women, to become a mom, to transition into that most humbling job, the most time-consuming, most frightening and joyous and important experience. Looking back, that’s difficult. And I actually had to maneuver my professional path around it. I mean, I certainly walked away from opportunities in order to be a more present mom. And that’s what you do.
And maybe that’s changed. I certainly, along the way, then got to work with Robin Sproul, the bureau chief of ABC News — just one of the most wonderful people and wonderful bosses and women in the business of all time, really lucky to work under her. And so it got easier. There are now a lot more women, obviously, in television, in the work I do, across the board. And I guess in the beginning… You know, we were exotic back when I was 27 in the newsroom, but it often felt very strange. And I’m just glad that there are a lot more women in this business — in all industries — across the board.
And I have a very strong feeling about women in politics as well, that I really… I’m kind of biased towards women as problem-solvers, managers, listeners. They read to the end of the email, unlike men. They’re better team players, they’re better team leaders. And I’ve asked Republican women candidates about this, and they always say, “Oh, I’m not running because I’m a woman, I’m just running because I want to lower taxes and regulation.” But I think that women in both parties should run saying, “We need more women in politics because at the table we bring something special. And we just simply are bringing different skills to problem-solving in a way that I think could make dramatic improvement in the system if both parties committed to electing more of them and embracing the fact that women are different.” But in some quarters, that’s still a weird thing to say.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I realize this is sort of a general question, but you’ve pointed out one of the ways in which politics is different now, which is just more women involved in governing. What are some of the other ways in which politics has changed during the time you’ve been active in political reporting? And what are some of the factors that seem to be making politics more dysfunctional nowadays?
A. B. Stoddard: This is where the conversation begins to turn dark, Geoff. There are the usual suspects on my list that everyone else has. When I started covering the Congress, we were using LexisNexis and the fax machine. And it was not at all as easy for special-interest groups to stalk you and target you and infuriate your constituents and punish you for working across the aisle. And yes, you had to do a lot of fundraising —not nearly as much as you do now. But just as we were talking about, in the ‘90s people did stay largely in Washington and they had friendships and they played tennis together. And they lived together in the suburbs and went to the same church and ended up at each other’s kids’ graduations. And that makes a huge difference in the level of comity, obviously, and cooperation.
The most piercing anecdote of my career, when I look back on how those actual structural changes led to so much — fueled and amplified the polarization — I think about in 1996 at the Defense of Marriage Act in the House. I often would press my face in the speaker’s lobby to the window into the chamber to see who was with who and who was looking at their shoes and trying to dodge the moment. And that was really one of those high-drama moments. And interestingly enough, which has nothing to do with the story, I actually was covering Don Young. My first reporting job in the Congress was for States News Service, and I was given Alaska (where I had never been) to cover the Alaska delegation. And Don Young is one of the most supremely grumpy members of Congress — and still is, with pride. But I had covered him in the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee.
And I watched him leave the Republican side of the chamber and walk over and sit on the Democratic side of the chamber, during the Defense of Marriage Act, and put his arm around Congressman Gerry Studds, who was the first openly gay member of Congress — who had been censured by the Congress for an affair with a page who was a minor 13 years before that. And if Don Young did that today, we would speak of nothing else for six months straight. People would be in his bushes threatening his life. Today, that would happen.
That was a brave thing then, but it was still realistic because there was a bond between members. Obviously Studds had been chairman until the takeover in ’94, with Young as his ranking in that committee, then Young was chairman and Studds was his ranking. They had a deep, abiding friendship. And Don Young stuck his neck out in front of his Republican colleagues during this tough vote that the Democrats, with much intra-party tension — within the Clinton administration and the national party — they were taking this vote even though they were really uncomfortable about it, and in essence against same-sex marriage and the benefits that are provided to heterosexual marriage.
It was a really big moment. And I just think that kind of thing really would not be allowed today. And people take pride in the fact that they are not interested in relationships across the aisle. And then of course we know that they’re actually sort of threatening each other, even in the Congress. That’s to me really the most telling anecdote I can come up with about how much of a different world it was.
Geoff Kabaservice: It occurs to me that we both went to college in Connecticut at a time when the governor was Lowell Weicker, who was a liberal Republican. And to even use the term “liberal Republican” nowadays sounds like a contradiction in terms or political science fiction. But within our not-all-that-long lifetimes such creatures were to be found at least in some numbers.
A. B. Stoddard: Yes. And I grew up in New York in a family of liberal Republicans. No one talked about their gay cousin, and we lived in pre-Rudy Giuliani Manhattan, with high crime. We were not in Alabama protecting our rights to own guns. I mean, everything was different in terms of the Republican Party of today. The focus was not on cultural issues, it was obviously on fiscal sanity, a role in the world on the global stage — not too many deep and broad foreign entanglements, but certainly a leadership role. And obviously lower taxes and small government. And these other issues were just on the sidelines. They weren’t the driving forces of the battle. Yes, you’re right. Even the term “liberal Republican,” most people who are much younger haven’t even heard that today. It’s astonishing.
Geoff Kabaservice: So since you mentioned the Republican Party of today… Your most recent (or one of your most recent) articles in RealClearPolitics was about how Donald Trump, at a rally in Georgia, basically endorsed left-wing Democrat Stacey Abrams for governor over the actual conservative incumbent Republican governor Brian Kemp. So how would you try to explain this to a visitor from another planet? What kind of dynamic is at work where the former defeated Republican president is sort of endorsing left-wing Democrats over conservative Republican governors?
A. B. Stoddard: Well, at times I feel like we were invaded by people from another planet, starting in 2015, because everything about our politics has changed. Everything about the Republican Party has changed. And everything about the constitutional order has changed, which is the most frightening and the most consequential. But I think that if you had seen the scene that Saturday night in Perry, Georgia, and he was just a sore loser in the process of being sidelined by the Republican Party, you would say this is a demagogue for whom it is all about him. He once led a party that he has just abject contempt for, he doesn’t intend to unify or aid in any way. He doesn’t want them to win elections, he’s only interested in punishment. And it’s lucky for the Republicans that he’s on the way out and just doing some carnival barking sideshows, and some crowds are still showing up.
He is the leader of the Republican Party. And when he does what he did to dump on Brian Kemp and then say, “You’d all be better off with Stacy Abrams” (the Democrat who’s likely to challenge him), it infuriates Republicans — and they remain completely silent. They do nothing about it. Somebody somewhere might be making a phone call to one of the Trump lackeys who surround him — no longer Corey Lewandowski, who has now been temporarily sidelined for drunkenly telling people that he stabs people and sexual assault, but there are others who might be getting a small phone call, a whimpering voice about how it’d be really helpful if the former president, who’s so important to us, just didn’t endorse Democrats. But that’s all they’ll do. They know it won’t be effective, and they’re probably not even making those phone calls.
He has no intention of helping the Republicans next year. He will have vengeance rallies where he might, if he gets his candidate of choice to win a primary… He might show up in the primary battle to help his candidate of choice oust the person he’s targeting, a Republican who might have supported impeachment against him this last January. But I doubt that he’ll even really help them across the finishing line if he gets MAGA candidates, especially in swing districts. It’s just really about his own fundraising, his own platform, and his vendettas. And I don’t think that’s going to change between now and next November.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, I have a hard time explaining how we got to this position, and I’m somebody who has studied the Republican Party fairly closely. And part of what’s taught me humility in recent years is that a lot of the history doesn’t really seem to offer a lot of guidance to what has gone on since 2015. But what people on the left I think don’t understand is that as improbable as it was for Donald Trump to have won the presidency (or at least to have won the Electoral College) in 2016, I think it was at least as improbable that he won the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 against a large field of 16 other candidates, most of whom had extensive experience in politics, built-in support, and a lifetime of work for the Republican Party, which of course Donald Trump did not have.
And if you went back just four years before the 2016 election, every single Republican presidential candidate was claiming absolute fidelity to the legacy of Ronald Reagan. And Trump in so many ways has departed from that brand of conservatism. So how do you think that happened? What were some of the critical factors that allowed Trump to dominate and redefine the Republican Party?
A. B. Stoddard: Well, I too am as surprised as everyone else that he was able to be a lifelong Democrat and then just change on a dime to win over enough of the primary base that he could just eke out in pluralities a path to the nomination, which is how it happened in the beginning. If you look at the support for every other contender, of course it was always larger than the support for Donald Trump. But he was then able to just resoundingly, staggeringly galvanize through cultural issues enough of the base to really intimidate those other contenders and really just bewilder them so that his following was so much more fervent and attached and adoring than people were even prepared for. So the Not-Trump Republicans who kept supporting other people up and until the final days, with Ted Cruz and I guess John Kasich, they were watching around them people turn towards Trump. And it was surprising them in their family, at their office, in their neighborhood. And then they also of course loathed Hillary Clinton and they were going to get on board to take her down really no matter what, no matter who was running.
So it was kind of a perfect storm of so many things. But he very shrewdly had Sam Nunberg and other people harvesting the fields of talk radio to find out what the base was really angry about and hated. And then he passionately spoke to those themes while calling everyone else a wimp. The case he made against the establishment — that “They have repeatedly sold you out, and you’ve been suckered into supporting them, and they’ll never solve the problem” — the glue that that became for him and enough of the voters, that the voters who resisted him were just so overwhelmed by the fervent Trump support they saw around them in quarters that surprised them. So they just threw in.
And I grew up in a time where you could not go two days without hearing an ode to the greatness of Ronald Reagan. And the reverence in the Republican Party for Ronald Reagan was not matched anywhere else in the Republican Party with other presidents, except for talking about Lincoln, and then in the Democratic Party. You cannot raise the name of Ronald Reagan now in the Republican Party, in MAGA world, or you would be written off immediately as a sellout RINO traitor. And obviously he wouldn’t be able to win a Republican primary — for immigration and other issues. But the triumph of Ronald Reagan was his fealty to liberty and how much he spoke to the American people about our greatest exceptional gifts and blessings and what we needed to champion all around the world.
And Donald Trump never spoke about liberty — really from the day he was in office, he never did. He only started talking about freedom when he realized that his base didn’t like the lockdowns that he announced and supported back in the spring of 2020. And then he started talking about “freedom.” But just thinking about not only the reverence for Ronald Reagan literally evaporating, but everything that he stood for in a wonderful way is like some remnant of the Republican Party that no one’s allowed to even discuss anymore. It’s incredible. Like you, I can’t make sense of it. After the 2020 election, I went into my office, Geoff, and threw out a whole bunch of stuff that I had on the history of the Republican Party, what might happen next… I just tossed it.
And what’s so interesting now about history not applying to the present battles — I find it stunning — look at the Democrats right now. The Democrats on the Hill are saying, “We sold out the public option in the healthcare battle in 2010, and we’re not going to be snookered again by you establishment Democrats. We shouldn’t have done that” — when literally democracy is now hanging in the balance. We didn’t have that threat in 2010. Now we have about a year to do something to stop the Republicans from stealing the 2024 election, and they’re screaming about what provisions they can jam into this unpopular, too-expensive package and waxing about the popularity of the hearing-aid benefit. It’s just crazy to me.
They think that they’re telling us they’re going to prevail because they’ve integrated and learned their lesson from 2010, and it doesn’t apply right now. This is a higher-stakes game where they’re going to lose power even if they want to do that in the name of progress, and then be obliterated essentially as a party. It’s amazing to me that none of the things from decades ago or even five years ago seem to apply right now.
Geoff Kabaservice: I recall a conversation I had with Ezra Klein about three years ago where I was defending the utility of an understanding of history for assessing current politics. And he basically came back and said, “Actually, history is pretty much useless at this point. Because people don’t actually believe what they claim they believe. The things that motivate them are not even what they understand themselves to be motivated by.” And I have definitely had a reassessment since that time. However, I do think that something the Democrats might benefit from is knowing more about the Tea Party, and how the Tea Party movement was able to overthrow the establishment represented by people like John Boehner and Paul Ryan, and how the Tea Party’s apparent motivation of fiscal conservatism and fiscal responsibility was actually tissue-thin. And other motivations were really what drove the Tea Party movement, which was how it ended up being Donald Trump’s mainstay of support.
And then also I think it would be useful for Democrats to examine the role of the House Freedom Caucus, and how a relative minority of the party was able to bend the larger majority of the party to its will by being an unyielding ideological monolith. What do you think about these thoughts?
A. B. Stoddard: Well, I agree with you Geoff, which happens a lot. I think that the Democrats, they’re in a really bad predicament because of their margins. So that even if the progressives do not band together in a cohesive, large-enough bloc to threaten the agenda the way the HFC did, really only three people at a time can be hostage-takers — or one at a time — because she’s only working with a four-seat margin. And that is emboldening them. And then of course in the Senate side they don’t control — they preside over the chamber and they control the committee process, but they don’t have an actual majority. And so it’s so tenuous over there. I think that that’s what the problem is here, is that the fragile margin has enabled them to look as if they are really controlling the agenda when they’re actually not.
On process, they’ve had now a symbolic tactical victory. And what’s interesting is that they were enabled by the White House. And what I did not think was going to happen in 2021 is that President Biden was going to roll the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi understood that doing those two bills together by the end of September was important politically, because it was all going to happen at once and they were going to champion a bipartisan bill that passed that would immediately start producing new jobs. And instead, because of a process breakdown, it looked to the media and to people who weren’t watching at a granular level as if the progressives prevailed and they are now the champions of the party and they’re in control and the socialists are going to take over.
So it gave Republicans a huge opening that was unnecessary. And it was all because Joe Biden rolled Nancy Pelosi. None of this we could expect. She made a promise… I’m taking this recent example because I think it speaks so much to when an establishment exerts control or loses control over an insurgent faction like the Tea Party. Nancy Pelosi made them a promise and then broke it. She rarely ever does this, but she did. And then the White House made her eat her words.
Geoff Kabaservice: This is her promise she made to the moderates?
A. B. Stoddard: Right. First she said to everybody, “We’re going to pass these two bills, that divide our party, together. It’s going to be great.” It wasn’t realistic. And then she says, “I’m really sorry, we just can’t. We’re going to pass a bipartisan bill that attracted the support of 19 Republican senators and pass it into law and work really hard on getting the other thing out really soon — but afterwards.” And then you have Joe Biden coming in at the end of September, in a surprise visit in person, and saying, “Yeah, we’ll just go back to pairing them.” And he rolled the Speaker, which is astounding. So they have to get on the same page about the insurgency that they have in their midst. The left, in groups like the Justice Democrats, are now trying to primary — as they have been unsuccessfully, I might highlight, for years, for at least two cycles — trying to primary incumbent Democrats.
And you have someone like Hakeem Jeffries, who’s supposed to get the speakership, starting a PAC with Josh Gottheimer, the lead moderate Democrat — the sort of rebel, the Joe Manchin of the House — to stop incumbent Democrats from being ousted in primaries by leftist insurgents. We’re beyond warning signs at this point. They have to figure out how to get this under control. The left never wins swing districts — they don’t succeed. They only succeed in making blue seats blue. And so this has to be dealt with or they’re going to break their party open. And if they do, it’s their own fault.
Geoff Kabaservice: I tend to be reflexively fond of moderates on either side of the aisle…
A. B. Stoddard: Same.
Geoff Kabaservice: …whether it be moderate Republicans (to the extent that they still exist) or the New Democrats or even the Blue Dogs. But I think it’s also useful to reevaluate one’s priors on occasion. I think, for example, the progressives have a point that the Obama stimulus bill was too small because the moderates overestimated the degree of opposition that there was to the kind of stimulus that actually was required to set the economy back on track. And I could also reach for historical examples where, for example, moderate Democrats during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations took the worst possible course on Vietnam — that of graduated escalation — because they set themselves up reflexively against what they perceived as the extremes of total withdrawal or total commitment.
So can you argue, perhaps from a devil’s-advocate perspective, about why the progressives might be correct to pair the Bipartisan infrastructure framework with the Build Back Better social spending, or why they may actually be correct in arguing that a lot of the Biden Build Back Better Plan is popular (or would be popular) and would benefit Democrats and even the country more than the smaller visions of the moderates?
A. B. Stoddard: They’re correct in some polling — and I tend to be very nervous about polling after the 2020 election — that a lot of these provisions are popular. But what they are trying to do is put in so many short-term targeted relief, short-term funding packages that they set up these political and fiscal cliffs in the years to come and create more problems and uncertainty. The argument from the moderates is: fine if we pair them, just trim the size of the social welfare package — it is by all estimates, in most polls, the price tag has been rejected by majority of voters, it is deemed too big. Pare it down and then do just what they’re saying at the White House: a few things well. Try to bring more universal benefit, things that everyone can get behind: action on climate, more subsidies of the ACA, childcare programs. Bring those in at higher funding levels so they last longer and people know that they’re happening. And don’t try to throw the kitchen sink in and then people find out that they only get it for 24 months.
This is right now what most Americans are not paying attention to. They’re paying attention to the price tag because that’s a big part of the debate, and the debate on cable and all the chatter. And they’re paying attention to the timing and the process. Are they going to pair the bills? Are they not going to pair the bills? I think the center would be fine with voting on them at the same time if the progressives would agree to more universal benefits instead of targeted relief. And there’s a debate going on about that. And so priorities will have to be cut if you fund things for longer.
I think in the end both things will pass. And I think in the end Joe Manchin will determine the price tag of the package, because that’s the reality. In the meantime, they’re going to figure out what’s in it and how long things are funded for. The problem with the progressives is that they are… The purpose of a political party is to win elections. And the progressives are in denial about the margins and who will make or break the majority next year. And Bernie Sanders’ exuberance over the dental benefits and the expansion of Medicare and all of these things versus the actual political needs of the swing district Democrats in the House, which is to address climate, to use the child tax credit, this kind of thing that’s popular in their districts where they can hold their seat that was recently held by Republicans so that they can help hold the majority — that should be the priority
But we’re really looking at this point at the prospect of progressives going for broke trying to say, “We want to get all these things in and we don’t care if it costs us the majority.” And as one exasperated New Democrat said to me this weekend, “The Great Society programs ushered in the heyday of the Republican Party with Nixon and Reagan, and the Democrats lost election after election in the name of ‘progress.’” It’s really hard to back the progressives’ go-big strategy, Geoff, because I’m very concerned and I think Democrats should be very concerned — and I’m not a Democrat — about what it means if Kevin McCarthy has a 3-seat majority versus a 33-seat majority. And in between is the world.
Are you going to lose Elissa Slotkin, Elaine Luria, Abby Spanberger and a whole bunch of swing-district Democrats, as the party did in 2020, and hand a sturdy majority to the Republicans to begin their wrecking-ball plans, impeach Biden for no reason, on and on? I mean, they just have to think long and hard about that, just to be able to say they got 19 extra programs in the reconciliation package.
Geoff Kabaservice: I wonder, as someone in the media, whether you have thoughts about the media’s responsibility for the present political dynamic? I mean, for example, all of those moderates you mentioned don’t get a fraction combined of the coverage that Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez receives. Her wearing a “Tax the Rich” dress to the Met Gala is going to make 10 times more news than anything related to policy that the moderates might be pressing. And I sometimes think that a really underestimated factor in media coverage is how they are bored with the reality that most elections at the presidential level are decided in the suburbs. That’s not news. They want conflict. They want to be able to say that it was the J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy voter out in that diner in West Virginia who decided the election or that it was the Hispanic voters who decided the election. When the reality is, no, actually it’s pretty much the moderate majority of Americans in the suburbs who decide elections.
A. B. Stoddard: Yeah. I was fascinated to see that Matt Yglesias just recently had a piece about how the median voter is lacking a college education and is white and in their mid-fifties. The Democratic Party is not interested in acknowledging a lot of the data that was decisive in the 2020 election that David Shor has talked a lot about. The fact is that he’s a data analyst who calls himself a progressive but had a falling-out with the woke mob — and that’s another story, it can be Googled. But David Shor talks about how the “defund the police” stuff worked against the Democrats in the last election among Latino women who were concerned — not only working class black and Latino men but women — who were concerned about the police in their neighborhood and presence in the security of their neighborhoods. And the Democrats and what happened in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas… The Democrats have not faced the reality of their liabilities and the fact that Joe Biden almost lost the election by less than Hillary Clinton lost the election.
It’s just craziness. I do think that the moderates, you’re right, don’t get a lot of attention, although Josh Gottheimer does end up on television pretty regularly. The problem is for your average swing Democrat in the House, the truth is they don’t want to be in public rows with progressives, and they don’t want to be critical. Because it’s very hard for them. They don’t want to lose endorsements, they don’t want to lose fundraising. They don’t want groups in the Democratic Party to look at what’s going on now and say, “You know what, the moderates, they’ve asked too much. I’m just going to go fund a governor’s race instead of sending a check to support the front-liners in the House.”
They want leadership to push back on progressives, they don’t want to do it themselves. So there are very few of them like Joe Manchin and Josh Gottheimer who get out there and are leaders in No Labels and such and are willing to be on the chopping block and take the incoming. A lot of them are just staying quiet. And they know how vulnerable they are after 2020, and we know that they made sure their leadership knew that after 2020. The reason that they don’t get a lot of attention is they’re intentionally staying quiet, so they’re not really in the cable news story. And as we also know, there’s not a lot of debates left in the media. A lot of the coverage is people agreeing with each other and not really having… I don’t know when the last time I saw a Congressman from the Progressive Caucus with a Congressman from the New Dem caucus together on a show debating the finer points of this policy. It doesn’t really happen. And maybe that is because the moderates are just trying to stay out of it.
Geoff Kabaservice: It also does seem to me that the business model of cable news political discussion increasingly is tending in a more polarized direction; that one channel or another is going to be part of Team A or Team B, and anyone who comes bearing an opposing perspective is going to be greeted like a skunk at the proverbial garden party.
A. B. Stoddard: No question. And I think it’s unfortunate. While I do not like the fights that drove clicks and fed the business model of a few years ago, that seems to have ended, and it seems that people are talking just to each other. When I go into my doom mode, Geoff, I tend to get nastygrams on Twitter or in my email because people don’t like it when I pick on both parties. That’s unpopular, and I guess there’s not a lot of us doing that. But I know that the fights, the conflict — that seems like a model we were in for several years. I think it ended in maybe the end of the Trump administration. You just don’t see a lot of Democrats going on Fox and making the case and debating a Republican. You don’t see the same on CNN and MSNBC in reverse.
Geoff Kabaservice: As you say, the left does not appreciate even constructive criticism from the right. But nonetheless, I have been surprised by the extent to which left-leaning media has really under-covered some of what seem to me to be the shocking events around January 6th. I don’t know if the John Eastman memos, advising Trump and Pence how they could undo the Electoral College vote thanks to ambiguities in the Electoral Count Act, are too boring for most viewers, or if that’s the judgment that the media outlets are making. But anyway, it seems to me that Democrats generally have failed to respond with the appropriate seriousness to what you and the other panelists on Mona Charen’s “Beg to Differ” podcast discussed most recently, which is Bob Kagan’s article on our present constitutional crisis and the very real possibility that something awful could happen around the 2024 election.
A. B. Stoddard: I am astounded that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have not publicly released Bob Kagan’s piece to their conferences with an attached letter saying, “I expect you to read every page of this” — it’s 11 pages or whatever it is — “and I want you to know that we are trying to govern with a radicalized party that intends to break the system. And we have to respond accordingly.” I’m just astounded. The January 6 commission looks like it’s a serious undertaking; they’re very committed to bringing out the truth. And that could produce some dramatic, attention-focusing revelations to wake up the electorate. But as a party… It is staggering to me that we could be in the situation where they continue to be fighting about hearing aids and that they are not taking seriously the fact that they’re running out of time to mitigate this threat.
And so my frustration all year has been that they want to focus a voting-rights debate on a bill they knew would never pass. It was written before the current threat and the big lie and a failed coup. That was a messaging bill that is a joke, and it was never going to pass. And they want to continue to talk about voter suppression and vote-casting and access to the ballot when the real crisis and the real threat remains the prospects for voter nullification and subversion and the stealing of an election. And by that count they have failed. The Manchin compromise voting rights bill does address these problems. It will be very hard for him to get 10 Republicans, but we pray that he does. I imagine people at the highest level of the Democratic Party do appreciate that this is an emergency, and that they want to tend to this after they get through this budget agenda fight, and that they will. And I believe in sincerity that Joe Manchin is committed and invested and worried about these very issues of voter nullification.
The idea that the Democrats are going to spend $25 million from the DNC to “get out the vote” — and with voter registration and education overcome all of the shenanigans that Republican legislatures are passing in these swing states so that they can totally control the process — is a joke. And wait until those voters find out that they cast their votes but were not counted. So I have been alarmed all along — this is going back now at least six months — at their refusal to focus on the crisis at hand and their insistence on talking about how you can’t hand out water bottles in line anymore and there are not enough drop boxes like there were in the pandemic. And that’s just not the problem that we face.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since you raised the subject of women on the Republican side earlier, let’s talk about, let’s say, Susan Collins, the longtime Senator from Maine. This is somebody who represents at least a purple-ish state and who has indeed played a significant role in whatever level of bipartisanship existed in the Senate in years past. Her partnership with Maryland Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski really did lay the groundwork for a lot of cooperation between the parties. Women were the senators who actually broke the government shutdown in years past. They have indeed played a constructive role behind the scenes in creating whatever level of dialogue does exist in Washington. What’s going through her mind as she sees these Republican state legislatures passing measures to in effect nullify elections? When will she actually speak out on the ambiguities of the Electoral Count Act that came very close to producing a constitutional crisis on January 6th? What’s it going to take for someone like that to act?
A. B. Stoddard: Well, I obviously can’t answer that. But my wishful thinking is that she is actually engaging with Joe Manchin on this issue and understands, post-reelection — and she won with a very, very impressive surprise margin of almost nine points when every single poll showed her in a dead heat or losing all year long… I think that she understands how to win and how to legislate across the aisle. And I’m just one of the people who thinks that the world would be a worse place if Susan Collins were not at the table, which she is. To this minute, she’s at the table on all these issues. So my general feeling about the voting rights stuff is that those conversations are going on. They’re on the back burner because of this other stuff, but that I hope that they are happening and that [Manchin] is building support among people like Susan Collins for the urgency of addressing the Electoral Count Act and other protections.
The thing that also bothers me is I just don’t understand why people who are retiring can’t come to the rescue of the system. She’s not retiring, but she just was reelected. So I’m talking about Richard Burr, I’m talking about Pat Toomey, I’m talking about Rob Portman. And I was really disappointed that the people who retired last year — Lamar Alexander, I’m forgetting who else, Pat Roberts — that they couldn’t come up to the gate and say, “Look, on my way out, I think it’s really important that I say that I see that this institution is in trouble. And we need to come together and we need to do what we can to shore up the system. And it’s the best thing for the country” — and just walk out the door.
So I am counting on the people that have just been reelected and maybe are in their last seats. I’m counting on Mitt Romney, who is sort of an island unto himself. I don’t know if he’s going to run again in Utah. He’s maybe 74 years old or something like that, but according to Chuck Grassley, Mitt Romney could have a few terms left in him. I’m counting on him to see the threat and do the right thing. And if they don’t, I’ll be upset.
That’s my wishful thinking, Geoff, is that maybe this year, before the midterms and before the next presidential cycle, people who have just been reelected and are freed from those pressures (and I will not put Lindsey Graham in this bucket) and then people who are leaving could maybe step up and take this seriously. Because maybe they’ll see this different lead than they saw impeaching Donald Trump for the incitement of the insurrection, which Rob Portman took a pass on. Maybe they’ll see that this doesn’t have anything to do with any personalities or people and is simply an institutional reform that we must pass. I want to be optimistic that that’s still possible, that we can count on them.
Geoff Kabaservice: A question I’ve had — and I don’t have an answer to this — is to what extent a lot of the positions that your average Republican voter takes are seriously held. People change their minds even in today’s polarized society. I know some people who thought what happened at Bengazi was the worst possible betrayal of all time, and then they eventually came to realize that was perhaps an overheated take in the moment. So to what extent do you think there actually is a prospect that some of these Republican voters who say they think Joe Biden is an illegitimate president are going to change their minds? To what extent do you think the idea that policy doesn’t matter to Republican voters is going to change?
A. B. Stoddard: I do not think that the big lie adherents are going to change their mind. I truly believe that once you buy the big lie you always buy the big lie. I’m very concerned that the number of people that think that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president has risen, in the winter into the spring. The number of Republicans who think that the insurrection was a dangerous event and a problem has lowered since the spring. This is really concerning. And I don’t think they’re going to change their mind, and I don’t think they’re going to go back even if there are just incredibly dramatic revelations from the 1/6 committee. I really don’t. I don’t think that that’s going to make a difference.
I know that they changed their mind, the legislators, the electeds… They changed their mind about free trade, they changed their mind about eminent domain, they changed their mind about our role in the world — all because of Donald Trump. But I don’t think that we are going to see any kind of improvement in the prospects for our democratic health, the health of our democracy, among the Republican base and then the Republican electeds in the months to come. I don’t think we can count on that. I just don’t think it’s realistic.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I guess sort of a big framing question would be the extent to which you see Donald Trump as an accelerant of American decline more generally. To what extent would a future historian be someone like Bob Kagan, perched almost from a perspective of a few years in the future, looking back at what caused the downfall of the American Republic and its continuing slide in world power and saying, “This is what should have been happening in 2021, in 2022”? To what extent do you think that there are going to be enough Americans who care about the country’s political, cultural, economic health that they will pull back from some of these extreme positions?
A. B. Stoddard: I believe that this is a result of many factors, but most of all it’s fueled and enabled by social media. So the extent to which Americans begin to walk away from social media, engaging in political fights on social media, getting their news solely from their Facebook wall, this type of thing — that could really help if they bought into the fact that their minds have been melted intentionally by Facebook and Instagram and everything. That actually could give us some space in which people see what the culprit was and then see that maybe they’d been misled and to take the temperature down. I don’t expect our party leaders to be the answer to taking the temperature down. I think it’s going to have to come from the ground up.
That’s my concern, is that I don’t know how … I mean, Geoff, there is a possibility that next year we see a surprise result and the Democrats hold on somehow because swing voters say, “The Republicans have become a party that is willing to break the rules to hold onto power, but they’re not interested in governance and they’re nihilist.” And so we see a surprise result. If we’re not surprised, then Republicans are going to take the House and possibly the Senate. And that’s going to empower Donald Trump and all of this anti-constitutional behavior, which is going to have really scary ramifications. But what concerns me is that I know people who’ve commissioned polling on the threats to democracy, and people seem tuned out.
And I have friends and family members who after Trump left office said, “Oh, thank God I don’t have to follow politics anymore,” and are on their merry way and have no idea what’s going on and don’t follow this anymore — because they don’t think they have to and they’re tuned out. And I understand, I understand why they are. They don’t know what’s happening in these state legislatures, they don’t understand that Madison Cawthorn is calling for a holy war or that Paul Gosar is telling his constituents there will be a reelection and he has been assured by a non-existent fraud department in the CIA that their leader in the Congress, the House Republican leader, doesn’t think what they’re saying is wrong. And that we have people stoking the potential for violence, stoking potential violence. Americans have really tuned out from this — unless I’m wrong. This is just my anecdotal … I look around in my world and I just see the people who aren’t in this business just walking away.
And so unless people who follow politics a little bit are more animated by this by the end of next year and after the findings of the 1/6 committee than I think they are now, I think that we just have too much apathy about this, that people don’t understand it’s a norms-based system. They think it’s written in a tablet somewhere, carved for all infinity, and surely the grownups are going to take care of us — which of course is what I thought my whole life until the last few years. And that’s the problem. There are too many people who have become deranged by social media and misinformation. And they believe that they are the champions of democracy, the ones who want to bust the system open and reinstate Donald Trump as president. And that’s why I believe we’re in for choppy waters.
Geoff Kabaservice: As a last question, A. B., is there a particular race in 2022 that you think is going to be revealing about what the future might hold? For me, it’s definitely the Ohio Senate race. If Republicans take the message that Josh Mandel or J. D. Vance can be a deeply anti-institutionalist champion of the culture war and win against a more mainstream Democrat, then I think we’re in for real trouble in 2024. Is there any particular race besides that one that you’re looking toward as a way of seeing what the future direction of politics will be?
A. B. Stoddard: Well, I feel so lame but that was going to be my answer, Ohio Senate. There’s an open seat in Pennsylvania, I’m very fascinated to see what direction that’s going to go in; seeing if Ron Johnson’s going to leave office and what would happen there if he did — he’s being very mysterious. But certainly the Ohio Senate race where you have a really, as you said, thoughtful Democrat, mainstream Democrat. Tim Ryan, he’s sort of the default primary candidate. But once he’s cleared to be the general election candidate, I’ll be fascinated to see how he runs. He absolutely knows Ohio, he knows Youngstown. He knows the Trump voter, he knows their culture, he knows their concerns.
And to see who he faces off against, as you said, who the Republicans rally around will be absolutely fascinating. It is a red state — I think he’s probably likely to lose — but who knows, depending on who they pick? J. D. Vance has become just a shell of who we all thought he was. It’s like they’re each trying to out-embarrass themselves for gain over the other, between him and Josh Mandel. So it’s going to be fascinating. And the Marino guy, the businessman who has a bunch of money… It’s just going to be a fascinating race, and mostly because for me Ohio is no longer the Governor DeWine, Senator Portman Ohio Republican brand that we’ve known for so long. It’s just going to be gone now. It’s amazing. But yeah, that to me is not only the most fascinating, but it will really be very consequential for the direction of the party.
Geoff Kabaservice: A. B. Stoddard, thank you so much for joining me today.
A. B. Stoddard: Thank you, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to The Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. If you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.