From a New York Times Discussion Headlined “We May Have Reached the Limit of Crazy That Will Be Tolerated”

From a New York Times discussion titled “We May Have Reached the Limit of Crazy That Will Be Tolerated”:

Frank Bruni, a contributing Opinion writer, hosted a written online conversation with Jonathan Last, the editor of The Bulwark, and Mallory McMorrow, a Democratic state senator from Michigan, to discuss midterm results and the future of Americans politics.

Frank Bruni: Jonathan, Mallory, I sit here in a state of mild shock, or at least significant surprise. Amid serious inflation, with a Democratic president whose approval ratings are no one’s envy, there was no red wave — nothing like what swept over the midterms after the first two years in the presidencies of Donald Trump and Barack Obama. There was more like an itty-bitty, pale red undulation. To what main factors do you chalk that up?

Jonathan Last: We had a pretty wide distribution of likely outcomes — anywhere from Republicans gaining as many as 30 seats in the House and gaining three in the Senate to a narrow Democratic House hold and even 53 Democratic senators. You could have gone from one of those to the other with a swing of probably 3 percent of the vote. So I wasn’t really surprised. We had three most-likely outcomes, and this was one of them.

As for why: I kept saying this over and over, but things aren’t actually that bad. Life in America is … pretty OK? Inflation isn’t fun and it causes real pain. But unemployment is low. Crime is not what Fox News makes it out to be. Gas prices are way down since summer. And Joe Biden has handled the Ukraine-Russia crisis very well.

Mallory McMorrow: For weeks, it’s felt more and more like 2018 on the ground here in Michigan … and clearly throughout the rest of the country as well. Inflation is a challenge, absolutely, but losing a fundamental right we’ve had for nearly 50 years? That wasn’t just a “summer blip” of an issue. It was an earthquake that kept people motivated. And Republicans may have finally reached the limit on how much people can take based on fear.

Bruni: So did the media oversimplify the American situation and dabble too much in “expectations” for the party in power during a midterm election? Did pollsters overadjust for their past failings?

Last: The polls did pretty well. Based on returns so far, Democrats seem to have overperformed their polls by maybe a point. That’s not bad. We saw a real swing back toward Republicans starting around Oct. 5. Before that, Democrats were in a much stronger position. The polls captured that movement toward Republicans.

What happened in public perception is that people seemed to think that the polls would keep moving toward Republicans, but they didn’t. The ground shifted enough to give them back a small advantage, but then we hit stasis.

McMorrow: Voting, at the end of the day, is emotional. That’s hard to capture in a poll.

Bruni: Mallory, you rightly raised abortion just a bit ago. One of the striking results from yesterday is that in every state where voters weighed in discretely on that, it looks like they made clear that they wanted at least a baseline of abortion rights protected. Did the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision have a huge impact in the end?

McMorrow: One hundred percent. For decades, Roe gave people — and Republicans — a stopgap. They could run as hard as they wanted against abortion because that protection was always there. It was clear Republicans had no plan for the fall of Roe, and the Dobbs decision ripped away that stopgap and forced the conversation to a place it should have been for decades — about how hard it is to get pregnant, stay pregnant, all the ways it can and does go wrong and the privacy necessary for medical decisions.

Bruni: Jonathan, your thoughts on the effect of Dobbs?

Last: I think it transformed the environment. Pre-Dobbs, we thought that Republicans would pick up at least 35 House seats and were a lock to get at least 52 in the Senate.

It’s hard to say, “In Race X, Dobbs added Z points.” But I don’t think anything about this cycle is the same without that decision.

McMorrow: It changed everything — and Democrats who leaned in fared well. Especially Democratic women.

Bruni: I know it’s a painful conversation, focused on an overexposed megalomaniac, but we must have it nonetheless. Donald Trump was one of Tuesday’s big losers, no? His Republican nemesis Brian Kemp romped to victory in the Georgia governor’s race. His Republican buddy Mehmet Oz lost his Senate race in Pennsylvania. Kari Lake in Arizona may not win. And his likeliest 2024 primary challenger, Ron DeSantis, notched an impressive victory in Florida.

Last: I’m actually bullish on Trump’s prospects. I would like nothing more than for him to go away and the Republican Party to revert to being the party of guys like Mike Pence and Brian Kemp, where you can argue about policy but don’t have to worry about a coup.

But Trump lost the 2020 election by seven million votes, and it didn’t hurt him at all with Republican voters. I am skeptical that a logical, “Hey, this guy is bad for the institution of the Republican Party” argument is going to sway them now.

McMorrow: I’m on the ground here in Michigan, and at one point we witnessed multiple Republican gubernatorial candidates fall over themselves to get to Mar-a-Lago trying to get his endorsement. I still think he’ll be the Republican presidential nominee, should he run.

Bruni: Jonathan, did you really say you’re “bullish” on Trump? Even with DeSantis on the rise? Even with Trump’s metastasizing craziness? I need more clarification! I need to understand! Actually, I need my blankie.

Last: I mean that I’m bullish on Trump’s prospects to be the Republican nominee. I am not making a moral judgment. I promise you that.

My view is unchanged: If Trump runs, he is the Republican nominee, barring an unforeseen circumstance, such as an indictment or a health event.

McMorrow: Last night’s results should scare the hell out of the Republican Party if Trump is the nominee. The election-denying base is still there, but in 2022, it seems like most people simply want to move on from 2020. Trump refuses to do that.

Bruni: Mallory, everyone thought the Democrats would be the ones having to explain themselves today. But the underperformance belongs to the Republicans. Beyond Dobbs, where else did it go wrong for them? Did this “candidate quality” thing really bite them?

McMorrow: Mitch McConnell said it himself — candidate quality is an issue. And in this hyperpartisan moment when it feels like many of the Republican candidates are competing for a TV gig on Fox News, don’t underestimate the power of normal Democrats — I’m thinking Abigail Spanberger, Elissa Slotkin, Gretchen Whitmer — to win.

Bruni: Jonathan, were there particular Republican candidates who you think lost not because of the broader political dynamics as refracted through their states but because, well, they stunk? Like maybe a certain medical doctor who pushes miracle cures?

Last: Probably? Oz was a bad fit for Pennsylvania. But also, John Fetterman was a beast of a candidate, who is a great fit for the state and is one potential model for what Democratic populism could look like.

Let me just say this about Trump and what he means to Republican electoral outcomes: With Trump on the ballot, Republicans make a calculation that his presence will cost them educated, suburban voters, but bring out a ton of low-education, low-propensity voters. And that net-net, this will be to their advantage. With Trump not on the ballot, that dynamic is still in play, but maybe net-net it balances against Republicans. So I can pretty easily see Republicans talking themselves into looking at last night and deciding that they need more cowbell.

Bruni: Mallory, what most surprised you last night?

McMorrow: I know we like to focus on federal and national races, but in Michigan, we’ve got a Democratic trifecta for the first time in nearly 40 years. The state House and state Senate flipped, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was re-elected handily. Michigan is a blue state headed into 2024. Beyond that, has Lauren Boebert [the Republican representative running for re-election in Colorado] officially lost yet?

Bruni: They have not yet called the Boebert race. But even if she somehow squeaks through, the narrowness of that victory remains a huge shock, no? And, I don’t know, an answer to how much crazy Americans will tolerate? I ask/say that, and think maybe it’s true, but then I think: Marjorie Taylor Greene! She’s still around, re-elected and empowered.

McMorrow: Exactly. That race alone, to me, signals we may have reached the limit of crazy that will be tolerated, Madison Cawthorn’s earlier loss in the Republican primary being a sign of that. There’s still room for a few (thinking of M.T.G.), but it feels like there’s a limited national appetite for a party full of M.T.G.s.

Bruni: Jonathan, the biggest surprises for you, and why?

Last: It wasn’t a surprise, but it caused me a great deal of angst that Tim Ryan could run such a great campaign against a candidate who is (a) a bad fit for Ohio and (b) openly arguing for Trump to run again and then provoke a constitutional crisis — and still lose.

That gave me a sad.

McMorrow: The Republican wins in Florida, and the margin DeSantis won by, definitely shows how divided we still are as a country. DeSantis — to many — still comes across as “normal,” or a more competent Trump.

Bruni: I said at the start that I sat here this morning feeling something between shock and surprise. I also feel a strange and welcome flutter of … hope? There was repudiation of Trump. There were not widespread reports of violence or intimidation at the polls. Election deniers didn’t have the greatest of nights. Is America on sturdier legs than we thought?

McMorrow: I feel incredible this morning. And it does feel like hope. Michigan alone sent a huge rebuke of the politics of fear, and I’m going to carry this feeling with me into the new year knowing just what we’re capable of. I’m reassured that our country may, in fact, have hit its limit on right-wing commentators turned politicians. This crazy American experiment might just make it after all.

Last: As a wise woman once said, expect disappointment and you’ll never get disappointed. So I’m not ready to say that we’re on sturdy — or ever sturdier — legs. There are lots of things to be grateful for this morning. But democracy needs (at least) two healthy political parties in order to function. And as of this morning, I don’t think we can safely say that we’re back to that point. Remember: Many of these results are a matter of a few thousand votes here or there, and then we’d be having a different discussion. This wasn’t a broad repudiation of the illiberalism which got us here over the last seven years.

Bruni: When you look at the midterm results and also at the wider national picture, what are the major challenges or big decisions that each party faces? What lessons should each party take away from the results?

Last: Democrats have to be better. They have to win real majorities in order to govern. At the presidential level, they probably have to win by around 5 percent in the popular vote to have a 50-50 chance of winning the Electoral College. They’re the only healthy, liberal (in the classical sense) party we’ve got right now. So they need to keep broadening their coalition, as difficult as that is. (And it’s difficult because the broader your coalition, the more internal tensions you’ll have between groups.)

As for the Republicans, let me ask you guys this: Why isn’t Brian Kemp the future of the Republican Party? He just won a big victory against a quality Democratic challenger in a key purple state. If the Republican Party was healthy, he’d be at the top of the list for 2024.

McMorrow: Jonathan, on that point, I hope Kemp is the future of the Republican Party! Our country would be a lot healthier if that were the case.

Last: Amen, sister. In my dream world, 2024 is a race between Josh Shapiro [who won the election for governor in Pennsylvania] and Brian Kemp, and we can all just kind of not care because neither of them is an existential threat to democracy and it’s just a debate about policy preferences.

Kemp’s status is really a stand-in for what’s wrong with the Republican voters, who, nationally, don’t want someone like Kemp. Until that changes, the Republican Party isn’t going to get “fixed.” But they can keep winning elections.

Bruni: Let’s talk Biden. He’s already the oldest president ever. To me at least, he doesn’t seem as energetic and assured and focused and clear as he was in the past. A suite of questions: Will he run again? Should he run again? Do the results significantly change what will happen here? And if not Biden, who?

Last: I mean, the guy just had — as a matter of passing popular, bipartisan legislation — the most successful first two years of any president since, who, Bill Clinton?

And he just quarterbacked the best first administration midterm result for an in-party since George W. Bush in 2002. And Democrats want to get rid of the guy?

On the other hand, he’s very old. And that’s not nothing.

My view is this: Trump is the most likely Republican nominee. And against Trump, Biden is clearly the best Democratic option. If Trump were to announce tomorrow that he’s not running, that changes the calculus and then Democrats would be wise to start thinking of other options.

McMorrow: I don’t think anyone can argue against the idea that Biden has accomplished a lot more than even most Democrats would have thought possible with such a slim majority. If he chooses to run, Democrats will back him. And the Dems who won last night did so by talking about the successes under the Biden administration, not by running away from them.

In this climate, I’ve got to believe it’s nearly impossible for any president to poll meaningfully above 50 percent in popularity. It was what — something like over 70 percent of Americans polled recently said the country is going in the wrong direction? Yet despite that, Democrats staved off any red wave.

Bruni: Jonathan, I don’t think it’s as simple as “Democrats want to get rid of this guy,” though you’re right that polling has shown that a majority of them want someone else as the nominee. But I think that’s fear, not a lack of gratitude, talking. That’s worry that he’s not the strongest, fleetest thoroughbred for the derby of a presidential race at this point. Democrats are congenital pessimists, remember?

Last: Frank, it’s basically this “Saturday Night Live” skit where everyone is terrified of a Biden 2024 campaign — until they start looking at the alternatives.

McMorrow: Maybe this is that “hope” talking, but we’re the “big tent” party. We lost over 1,000 Democratic state legislature seats during the Obama administration.

Bruni: OK, let’s go to a lightning round. Your spontaneous answers. All truth and id, no somber analysis. What are the chances — give me a percentage — that 2024 is a Biden-Trump rematch?

Last: Seventy percent.

McMorrow: Sixty-five percent.

Bruni: Which of last night’s winners, Democrat or Republican, is most likely to overplay his or her hand?

Last: There may be a leadership challenge to Mitch McConnell. J.D. Vance may decide to push all-in on that.

McMorrow: If Boebert staves off a loss, Boebert. No lessons learned.

Bruni: Will the slimness of any Republican majority in the House mean a reprieve from gratuitous investigations and the public disembowelment of Hunter Biden or not?

Last: Maybe? It probably makes impeachment harder to launch.

McMorrow: Wouldn’t that be nice? But no, I bet they double down on base meat and do very little on policy.

Bruni: Will Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis end up in fisticuffs? (I just wanted an excuse to use the word “fisticuffs.”)

Last: DeSantis couldn’t reach Trump’s jaw with his tiny T. rex arms.

McMorrow: Can I just insert the Bugs-Bunny-cuts-off-Florida GIF here? (Then they can go all in, fists a-flyin’, and we’ll be fine …)

Bruni: A question tailored for Mallory, but I want your answer, too, Jonathan — would Gretchen Whitmer make a better 2024 nominee than Biden?

McMorrow: Big Gretch is committed to another four-year term here, so no.

Last: Against Trump? No. Against a non-Trump? Possibly.

Bruni: Jonathan, why not against Trump? (And, Mallory, nobody who thinks he or she can actually win the presidency is committed to anything. It’s called ambition.)

Last: Gretchen Whitmer couldn’t win the nomination by universal acclaim — she’d have to win a big, bruising primary fight. I do not think Democrats would want to run a candidate who had to unify the party first against Trump, who would be a semi-incumbent.

Bruni: Of the midterm races whose outcomes have not yet been called, which is the most important?

Last: Arizona governor.

McMorrow: Agreed.

Bruni: If Kari Lake wins that race, can the three of us meet for a glass of hemlock?

McMorrow: I’ll gladly meet up for a glass (or two) of a good wine and get back to work. Because Michigan’s going to be all that more important to the future of the country if Arizona goes that way.

Last: I think that Lake, not DeSantis, is the natural heir to Trump. And I’m not even sure if it matters if she wins or loses this race. If she loses, she can run her own version of “Stop the Steal.” She’s the future. So yeah, I’ll take that drink.

Bruni: If Kari Lake is the future, I want to live in the past. But mostly I want to thank you both. You’ve been game and wise. Wine, it is.

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