A Bear Ate My Turkey: Lessons From the Midterms

by Michael Liss

The day before Thanksgiving I got this wonderfully understated text from a close friend:

A ???? ate our ???? last night. (I forgot it on the patio while it was brining.)

There is a lot that’s packed in there. He followed it up with a picture of the now-overturned and empty brining vessel, and a quite stunning shot of bear tracks in the snow leading away from the patio. Unless a local who knew of his remarkable culinary skill with fowl decided to approach the house wearing bear-claw flip-flops (to throw him off the scent, as it were), there was definitely a visitation from a neighborhood ursus americanus.

Fortunately, he resides in a rather bucolic part of a rather bucolic college town, which enables him and his family to live a bucolic life…, but they have access to several Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and similar establishments when these unexpected encounters occur. The turkey in question was, in absentia, bid a respectful adieu, and quickly and calmly replaced. My friend happens to be unflappable. I, on the other hand, am more urban, and have more flap about these kind of things, so I asked a follow-up question. As the brined bird and the bear claw were really close to the back door, was he prepared to exercise his 2nd Amendment rights, if hearth and home were threatened. I’ll leave the answer to that one to the imagination.

Wild game and guns, a perfect lead-in to the Midterms and the Whole Foods-Cracker Barrel Old Country Store split that pollsters identified. Cracker Barrel has exactly one location in each of Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, two in Connecticut, eight in Massachusetts (take that, Michael Dukakis), and none in Vermont. By contrast, it has 39 in West Virginia, with nary a Whole Foods in sight.  In January (numbers from Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House Editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report), House Democrats will represent 78% of Whole Foods communities and 27% of Cracker Barrel ones. Apparently, my people are better with organic duck breast pate than chicken-fried steak.

OK, I’ve had my fun, so let’s get down to the actual meal. There were a couple of bumps (like the Senate), but, on the whole, the Democrats did quite well in November—at current count, they flipped a net 40 Congressional Districts, 400+ State legislators, 7 Governors, and an assorted contingent of State Treasurers, Secretaries of State, Commissioners and other sub-luminaries.

The aggregate margin in CD races was 8.6 percent, some 9.7 million more votes, and, by some measures, it was the best midterm performance in over a century. Turnout was the highest since 1914.  Philip Klinkner, Chair of the Department of Government at Hamilton College, was kind enough to let me use the graph below to illustrate the upsurge, and how comparatively poor turnout has been recently, even in wave years. 

I’m sure I’ve whetted your appetite for more data: In January, House Democrats will represent 79% of all Asians, 72% of all Latinos, 66% of all African-Americans and Clinton voters, 60% of all college grads, 45% of all whites, 39% of all Trump voters—and just 20% of America’s total land area. There will be 33 Freshman women in the House—32 of them Democrats. Democrats dominated among younger voters: 67% of the age 18-29 cohort, and 58% of the 30-44 year-olds. Republicans, in an interesting straddle that tells you quite a bit about a key portion of their coalition, took 61% of white men with no college degrees, and also narrowly won both the $100-199K and above-$200K income brackets.

Was it an epic wave, an awesome wave, a tolerably solid wave, or just an ankle-buster wave? Fun, but irrelevant question. The water moved, and it’s better thought of as an essential-to-the continued-viability-of-the-Democratic-Party wave. With it (or on it) came not only new blood and new energy, but some real competitiveness in new places. The incredible flip of California’s conservative Orange County got a lot of the headlines, but the one that made me smile was the victory by 43-year-old lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher in the Houston-area 7th CD. That District had gone Democratic for 80 years until 1966, when it was won (seemingly permanently) for the Republicans by a Texas oil man named George Herbert Walker Bush.

What does this mean for 2020? It is really unclear. The road to 1600 Pennsylvania is probably a lot like 2016: it runs through the same states that flipped from Obama to Trump—Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. But it also may be subtly different, because of both an ongoing electoral realignment, and an acceleration in demographic movement. Those same younger people who broke sharply Democratic have also been moving from rural and economically challenged areas to college towns and cities, while older, more conservative voters are doing the opposite. This is probably a net negative for Democrats, particularly at the Electoral College level. You don’t get extra points for expanding your landslide in California, New York, or Massachusetts. Another warning sign for Democrats: While turnout was spectacular, late and same-day voters in the Midterms were more Republican than early voters—Wasserman estimates that a late surge in Republican enthusiasm saved roughly 10 Congressional seats, and he traces that surge to President Trump motivating his base.

You might have noticed, and have to be impressed by the fact that, until this last sentence, I managed to get over 800 words through this sumptuous meal without mentioning The Really Big Bear In The Room. But it’s time to clear the small plates and ask the question “Is Uncle Donald showing up in 2020?”

The short answer: If Donald wants to come, Donald will come. He’s the incumbent, and he’s in total control of the GOP, and every Republican (including the handful of battered dissidents) knows it. Only an outsider can mount a primary challenge to him, and that’s a vanity project at best right now. Those conservatives hoping for a Kasich/Ben Sasse-type can forget it. No traction whatsoever. This isn’t because most elected Republicans secretly wouldn’t prefer someone more conventional. It’s strictly self-preservation: there’s no safe harbor to oppose Trump and not get mauled by him and primaried by the angry Trump base. If Trump demands the best chair, and both drumsticks, they are his, and the only person he needs to worry about is Mike Pence slipping a little something into his Diet Coke. 

Conventional wisdom says Trump will demand it. He cannot stand giving up the prize he won. He loves the tweeting, the rallies, the fawning coverage by supportive media, and the control over the Justice Department and Pardons that he sees as both necessity and right. As Henry Kissinger once pointed out, power is the greatest aphrodisiac, and few politicians have ever been more obsessed with their potency than Trump. He knows that the minute he walks out that door, he’s like every other former President, no matter how admired—just a piece of history, a cancelled reality show.

I think that conventional wisdom is wrong, and he won’t run again. It’s obvious he hates most of the real work of being President. He hates the briefings, has contempt for the policy wonks and process, and thinks the details are ridiculous. He hates the “pastoral” role Presidents are expected to take on, like joining in Armistice Day commemorations and going to Arlington on Veterans Day. A different, less alienating person could have built a crack team around him to make up for his weaknesses. Trump is not that sort—his ego demands he be perceived as not only the decision-maker, but the only doer. That’s impossible: no one person has the complete skill set to do all of the world’s most demanding job.

Then, there’s Robert Mueller. Does he have the goods, and, if he does, will he be permitted to release them? Taking apart the nested Russian dolls is not easy. The whole thing is a kaleidoscope of seamy. The Manafort double-flip, with his lawyers inexplicably feeding information to Trump’s lawyers. The Michaels, Flynn and Cohen. The Roger Stone-WikiLeaks connection. The meeting at Trump Tower. The jack o’lantern face of Rudy Giuliani spouting cringeworthy garbage. But seamy is of a piece with swamp-like, and the electorate has already internalized that feature when it comes to Trump. What matters is “criminal.” Given the bizarre banana-republic nature of this whole thing and the utter lack of credibility of many of the witnesses, there may be a practical limit to what criminal conduct Mueller can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

But what Trump doesn’t realize is that Mueller’s problem is actually Trump’s problem. Trump thinks he has control: he can direct his AG to fire Mueller, he can tweet, he can use every tool at his disposal to take down the Independent Counsel, and, in the end, he has a firewall of elected Republicans. But what he doesn’t realize is all that seaminess, even if what can be proven is short of criminal, gives Putin the high card. Putin can deny collusion and extract a price from Trump (meaning a price from the United States) or he can admit collusion (whether it occurred or not) and create chaos. Or, and perhaps most corrosively, Putin can play “breadcrumbs” with us all, selectively dropping hints, releasing a combination of truth and lies that further erodes Trump’s legitimacy and his ability to act.

It’s this last eventuality, the diminishment of Trump, at home and on the world stage, that leads me to believe that he might finally realize he’s had enough and walk away from the table. He hates losing, and every President has some losses. Right now, Putin is challenging us in Ukraine and, just this past Wednesday, threatened an arms race. Xi is being provocative in the South China Sea—and, hitting Trump where he lives, on trade. This is only the beginning of it—both men are probing Trump for weaknesses, and finding them in his lack of grasp of policy nuances and his overarching pride. No matter how much Trump and his spokespeople engage in self-praise, reality is eventually going to crowd out messaging. Public failure is excruciating.

What’s next? There’s a paradox to Trump’s Presidency. There is no question that this is now The Trump Republican Party™. Yet Trump, for all his unorthodoxies of speech and behavior, is, on policy, largely governing as a conventional Republican. Much of Trump’s “winning” turns out to be baubles that Big Daddy Trump brought home to the traditional GOP—the judges, the hard-right social agenda, the ravenously destructive approach to the environment. But that’s not what drew many voters to Trump in the first place. The central premise of a Trump Presidency is that of tough big-time negotiator striding across the world stage, breaking scores of eggs, bringing home the trophies. The reality of Trump is more prosaic. He has blood flowing on immigration, but doesn’t have his Wall, despite Republican control of Congress. On trade, his brag has exceeded his bite, deficits are soaring, and “Tariff Man” is causing a lot of collateral damage to the very people he promised he would help. The tax cuts mostly went to stock buybacks and dividends. More plants are closing than opening, and his freak-out to Mary Barra of GM doesn’t change that. Don’t take my word for it: The St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank said this summer, “Never have corporate profits outgrown employee compensation so clearly and for so long.”

Most voters don’t expect miracles from government—they just want their piece of the world to get a little bit better. Trump recognized and exploited that in 2016, and Democrats need to now. There are signs they already are thinking that way: Rep. Cheri Bustos (IL) is the new Chairwoman of the DCCC. Trump won her district in 2016, but she was re-elected in 2018 by a 24-point margin, the best performance by any Democrat in a Trumpian district. Bustos thinks Democrats must learn how to do better in Republican areas—and a start is to forget talking about impeachment, and focus on things that resonate at home: jobs, wages, and health care. Issues that matter wherever you live near a Whole Foods or a Cracker Barrel.

That’s a strong start. Now all they need to do add in political infrastructure, tons of money, nerve, the common sense not to be drawn into dumb arguments, and youth and vigor. And new candidates, as many attractive ones as you can find: let’s not have any coronations or nostalgia for the good old days—the well of deference has been sucked dry. Finally, and most controversially, don’t run “against” Trump. The country already knows what kind of man he is, and they have either embraced that or rejected it. Instead, learn from two of the most popular governors in America, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, both Republicans in very Blue States—figure out what the largest number of your citizens want, regardless of their Party ID, and try to deliver it to them.

Do that, make that your message, and maybe two years from now there will be so many folks at your table you will need a second bird. Just don’t leave it outside. There’s bears in them thar woods.