If You Came Down From Mars Would You Guess That Trump Was Winning?
The problem with trying to create post facto rationalizations.
1. Biden and Carter
Last week Bill Kristol had a long conversation with Friend-of-the-Bulwark Whit Ayres and, as always, it’s worth your time. I often view the world differently from Whit but I always profit from his analysis. He’s great.
During the course of the discussion, Whit made three arguments:
If the election were held today, Trump would almost certainly win.
Biden is in an extraordinarily weak position for an incumbent.
Biden’s problem is that voters see him as they did Jimmy Carter in 1980: as a man with no ability to control the chaos that engulfs the nation.
Of these, #1 is almost certainly correct and #2 seems debatable, but plausible. For instance: Is Biden’s position weaker than Trump’s was in 2020? Or Obama’s in 2012? Or George W. Bush’s in 2004?
Biden is certainly in a weaker position than Clinton in 1996 or Reagan in 1984. I’d judge him to be a tick below the median strength for an incumbent president, but your mileage may vary.
What I really want to talk about is #3. So let’s look back at what the conditions were when Jimmy Carter was nine months out from reelection:
At this point in 1980, the unemployment rate was 6 percent; today it’s 3.7 percent.
The Q4 GDP growth rate in 1979 was 1 percent; in Q4 2023 it was 3.3 percent.
People talk a lot about mortgage interest rates these days: In February 1980 the average rate on a 30-year mortgage was 12.85 percent; today the average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage is 7.09 percent.
Ironically, Russia was the other big issue in 1980, too. Under Carter, the Soviet Union had strung American along in the SALT II talks.2 In December 1979, the Russians invaded Afghanistan. The Cold War seemed to be going against us.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and Biden led a response which has already resulted in a strategic defeat for the Russkies: NATO has been expanded; the Europeans are spending more on defense; and U.S. intelligence believes that the Ukrainians have inflicted 315,000 casualties on the Russians—the country’s greatest military loss since World War II. Biden used the Western weapons that were designed to counter Russian aggression to bleed the Russian Army dry—and did it without the loss of a single American soldier.
All of which is to say that I cannot understand any vector along which a comparison of Biden to Carter makes sense.
Or maybe I should say any objective vector. Because when Whit was talking about Biden and Carter, he was arguing that voters perceive Biden as being ineffectual in the way people perceived Carter in the early 1980s.
Maybe that’s right. Or maybe something else is going on.
This chart on presidential approval ratings by party ID tells two stories about polarization.
The first story is about the magnitude of polarization: From the ‘60s to 1980, the gulf between partisan views of the president—the amount of tan on the graph—was relatively small.
Beginning with Reagan, the share of tan on the graph started growing. By the time we hit George W. Bush, it was enormous. Today it’s nearly absolute. Seriously: You can’t get much further apart. Just about the entire chart is tan.
The second story is even more ominous: Partisan approval no longer moves in tandem. Prior to Obama, Republicans and Democrats were separated by a big gulf, but directionally they moved together, like the two groups were tied together at the waist by a rope. They noticed when things were going well, or poorly, and moved up, or down, together.
Beginning with Obama, that rope got cut. Democrats saw things getting better and their approval increased; Republicans saw the same facts and their approval decreased. This continued under Trump: Democrats thought things were getting worse and Republicans started to approve of Trump more.
Now, combine that partisan uncoupling with the mass economic delusion that is befuddling economists across the world. And then throw in the unprecedented fact that we’re on the brink of having a former president—who attempted a coup and is currently facing 91 criminal charges—as his party’s nominee.
Include the detail that this former president has said he will “terminate . . . parts of the Constitution” (his words) and wants to be “a dictator” (also his words). Add to it that leadership in the former president’s party is refusing to commit to certifying an election in which he is the loser.
And that a senator in this party argues that this president will have the authority to ignore Supreme Court rulings.
The totality of this suggests that something deeper is going on in America and that it’s not all about Joe Biden.
I keep coming back to this:
If you came down from Mars and looked at all of the current and historical data, but did not have access to polling, and had to guess the state of the race, then every reasonable observer would assume that Biden was way ahead.
And if I asked you to explain why you thought Biden was winning, you’d cite the chapter and verse from above. In fact, you might even make the comparison of Biden to Carter as evidence of why Biden was likely to win.
Because we have polling, we know that Biden is not up large. And so we’re trying to invent ex post facto rationalizations to explain a reality that differs from what reasonable observers would predict.
Whit’s explanation assumes that the fundamentals of American politics haven’t changed much: if Biden is losing, then it’s because he’s a weak candidate. I’d like this to be true, because it’s the optimistic view.
But I suspect that something has shifted at the quantum level in American society. My theory is that we have entered a new era in which voters no longer base their feelings on the same indicators—and no longer want the same outcomes—that they did 20 or 40 years ago.
This is only a theory, and a not-very-fleshed-out one at that. But people rarely understand when they’re living through epochal turmoil. It’s only afterward that the dividing lines between eras become clear.
2. The Future
Here’s what’s next from The Bulwark:
The Morning Shots newsletter will be taken over starting next Monday by Bill Kristol and our new White House correspondent, Andrew Egger.3 You’ll get in-depth political analysis from Bill, a table-setting look at the news to start your day, and reporting from inside the Biden White House. It’s going to be a great product and it should add a lot of value to your mornings.
Tim Miller is taking the helm at our flagship podcast, and you guys know what a stud he is. He’ll be partnering with our longtime producer Katie Cooper to continue The Bulwark Podcast’s run as the best politics show in America.
You probably noticed a few weeks ago that we’ve brought George Conway into The Bulwark family, and if you’re not listening to/watching his new show with Sarah, you’re missing out. George Conway Explains It All is huge hit—the biggest, most popular show we’ve ever had at The Bulwark.
(Last week’s episode was an instant classic. Don’t think, don’t blink—just go watch it.)
And on top of all that, a new newsletter launched today: MAGAville.
MAGAville is written by our new colleague Marc Caputo, formerly of the Messenger, NBC News, and Politico. He’s based in Florida and the guy is deeply sourced in Republican politics. He’ll be reporting multiple times a week and helping us understand why this timeline is unfolding the way it is.
If you saw Marc’s gigantic, longform debut this morning about the implosion of Never Back Down, you understand how valuable MAGAville is going to be. Ron DeSantis was hiding in the back of his own bus because he thought Never Back Down staffers were spying on him! Adam Laxalt was basically Al Haig!
Caputo’s newsletter will be an indispensable tool for understanding the next year.
When you look at the authoritarian playbook, it’s clear that the bad guys always want the forces of liberalism to get exhausted. They push and they push and it doesn’t matter how many times we turn them back. They know that defending democracy is tiring. They want us to put down the shield and walk away. Because they understand that they only have to win once.
Everyone needs to be in this fight in their own way and everyone has a role to play. For my part, I believe that this is the time to dig in and go big.
That’s what we’re doing and we’re proud and humbled that we get to do it with you.
If you’re not a member of Bulwark+ yet, this is the time to join. We’ve got a country to save. And the only way to do it is together.4
The NYT has a deep dive on the politics and reality of bitcoin mines:
On a sweltering July evening, the din from thousands of computers mining for Bitcoins pierced the night. Nearby, Matt Brown, a member of the Arkansas legislature, monitored the noise alongside a local magistrate.
As the two men investigated complaints about the operation, Mr. Brown said, a security guard for the mine loaded rounds into an AR-15-style assault rifle that had been stored in a car.
“He wanted to make sure that we knew he had his gun — that we knew it was loaded,” Mr. Brown, a Republican, said in an interview.
The Bitcoin outfit here, 45 minutes north of Little Rock, is one of three sites in Arkansas owned by a network of companies embroiled in tense disputes with residents, who say the noise generated by computers performing trillions of calculations per second ruins lives, lowers property values and drives away wildlife.
Scores of the operations have popped up in recent years across the United States. When a mining computer lands on numbers that Bitcoin’s algorithm accepts, the payout is currently worth about a quarter-million dollars. The more computers an operation has, the better chance of earning the payout.
The industry is often criticized for its vast energy use — often a boon for the fossil-fuel industry — and noise is a common complaint. Though some elected officials like Mr. Brown and other Bitcoin operators in Arkansas have voiced support for the beleaguered residents, a new state law has given the companies a significant leg up.
This was an increase from 1979, when the inflation rate was 11.35 percent.
People often miss that Carter’s view of the Soviet Union shifted in the final portion of his term. Carter ultimately pulled out of SALT II and by the end, he was nearly as hawkish on the Soviets as Reagan.
OG Bulwarkers will remember Egger from the early days. The prodigal son has come home; the fatted calf has been slaughtered.
Everyone who wants to be part of Bulwark+ should be. If you can’t afford it for whatever reason, drop me an email (or just hit reply to this email) and we’ll work something out. Our members support us precisely so that we can bring everyone along, regardless of their ability to pay.