8 min read

DeSantis, Alito, and Eugene McCarthy

Checking back in with some recent newsletter storylines.
DeSantis, Alito, and Eugene McCarthy
Eugene McCarthy at a 1968 campaign stop. (Wikimedia Commons)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, August 1, 2023. The 2024 elections are 462 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Happy August! With the president on vacation and Congress on recess, August often starts out as a quiet month in politics — but rarely ends that way. August is infamous for bringing sudden curveballs, many of which have derailed presidential vacation plans throughout history.

Most recently, President Biden was forced to cut short his August break in 2021 amid the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal. Presidents have had to do the same because of terrorist attacks (Reagan in 1983, Clinton in 1998, Obama in 2014); coup attempts (Bush I in 1991); hurricanes (Bush II in 2005); and white supremacist marches (Trump in 2017).

“History happens in August,” presidential historian Jon Meacham told Politico two years ago. “The beginning of World War I; Hitler amassing troops for the invasion of Poland; Truman’s dropping the atomic bombs; LBJ’s signing the Voting Rights Act; Nixon’s resignation; Reagan’s firing the air traffic controllers, the invasion of Kuwait for George H.W. Bush; Clinton’s grand jury testimony and the strike against Bin Laden; Katrina.”

This year, the most likely candidate for a historic event to add that list: Donald Trump seems poised to be indicted two more times, by Special Counsel Jack Smith and Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis, becoming the first former president to face four simultaneous indictments. Or perhaps it will be something else: the thing about historic curveballs is they can be quite hard to predict.

For now, though, I want to take advantage of the quiet — while it lasts — to catch up on a few topics I’ve covered in the newsletter over the past few weeks and months. As I’ve written before, the great thing about a daily newsletter is that it can be iterative, offering the chance to revisit previously discussed themes and see how they’ve been playing out since I last covered them. So let’s dive in and check up on some familiar storylines:

July 18, “DeSantis hasn’t reset anything yet”: This still largely remains the case, as several other news outlets have begun to note as well. NBC News, for example, wrote last night that “DeSantis has reset in name only.”

At the time, I wrote that the real thing DeSantis could do to reset his campaign was unveil a new message, since his current one does not seem to be striking a chord with GOP voters. As NBC noted, he has largely stuck to the same talking points through the alleged “reset” — although the past 24 hours brought some signs of an attempted messaging shift, as he put his signature fight against “wokeness” on the back burner during a major economic speech yesterday.

April 20: “The art of the schmooze”: Meanwhile, DeSantis’ social skills continue to plague him on the campaign trail. In the aforementioned NBC article, DeSantis is depicted having awkward interactions with a young kid, a 15-year-old struggling with mental health, and a grieving 82-year-old — all in a single campaign swing. Needless to say, these are all groups of people a candidate should be able to easily charm or sympathize with, as context warrants, on the campaign trail.

July 24, “If not DeSantis, who?”: In fairness to DeSantis, I wrote last week, it is genuinely hard to know how he should position himself in the Republican primary, considering GOP voters of all ideological stripes continue thronging to Trump in the polls. There seems to be little room to Trump’s left or right, making it difficult to know how DeSantis should even reboot his message in the first place.

A New York Times poll released yesterday underlined this point. First off, 37% of Republican voters in the poll say they are committed to Trump, so any GOP alternative already has less than two-thirds of the party available to them right off the bat. For a non-Trump candidate to win the Republican nomination, they would have to win almost all of the voters who say they are open to Trump but not committed to him (37% of the party, per the Times) and those who say they are not open to Trump (25%).

But the problem? These two groups are very different. As the chart below shows, the two factions have wildly divergent opinions on immigration, Ukraine, Trump’s criminality, and other issues — making it almost impossible for any candidate to unite them all under one roof. What’s more, 80% of the open-to-Trump-but-not-committed group still thinks it’s important for the GOP to stand behind him... so how persuadable are they really?

July 25, “Trump will not collapse on his own”: Last week, I noted that the GOP’s delegate rules — in which many states host “winner-take-all” or “winner-take-most” primaries — can often be a boon to frontrunners, a dynamic Trump will likely benefit from next year.  

We received another example of that on Saturday, when the California Republican Party finalized their 2024 delegate procedures. According to the new rules, which Trump pushed for, if a presidential candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the California primary, they will win all 169 of the state’s delegates.

That’s a big deal, since California offers more delegates than any other state — and its primary is scheduled for Super Tuesday (March 5), earlier in the process than usual. Trump is currently polling at 49% in California, so it is not hard to imagine him clearing the 50% threshold; if he does, it would give him a delegate advantage that would be very difficult for DeSantis or anyone else to come back from.

April 24, “The Biden doomsday scenario”: In this piece, I wrote about why Robert Kennedy Jr. — who had just announced his presidential campaign — was polling at around 20%, and what it said about how soft Biden’s support was among Democrats. I also wrote that if RFK Jr., as flawed a Democratic candidate as one could imagine, continued to poll well (or even performs well in a primary or two), it might induce some more serious Democrats to jump in the primary race.

This has aged well in some ways and poorly in others. First off, it should be noted that Kennedy continues to poll in the double digits (14.9%, per FiveThirtyEight), which means roughly one-in-seven Democrats are shopping around for a Biden alternative (if you buy the hypothesis that most of Kennedy’s support in such polls are Biden protest votes, not anti-vax Democrats). However, other polls (including the New York Times this morning) show Biden consolidating Democratic support as the campaign heats up, reducing the kind of threat I wrote about in April.

In the piece, I offered the example of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 as a presidential primary challenger whose entrance into the race seeded the ground for more challengers to crop up, once it became clear (in that case in the New Hampshire primary) how high discontent with the president was. More recently, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) has been mulling a Democratic presidential bid; reportedly, he is looking towards that same McCarthy example as inspiration. Here’s Jonathan Martin of Politico:

Phillips, 54, is highly unlikely to mount a primary challenge unless Biden’s health worsens or his political standing drops precipitously, I’m told, and does not want to further weaken the president. Yet he remains convinced that Democrats need a robust conversation about who to nominate and recognizes that the more obvious would-be challengers in the party will not get in unless somebody else first breaks the political ice — much as his fellow Minnesotan, former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, did against Lyndon Johnson in 1968.

July 13, “Do any ethics laws constrain the Supreme Court?”: In this piece, I wrote about the current ethics laws that cover the Supreme Court, in the context of efforts to enforce a more robust code of conduct for the justices. In detailing the laws that currently regulate the court, I noted an important detail: some justices have previously suggested that they only comply with such laws voluntarily, arguing that Congress doesn’t have any real power to force their compliance as a coequal branch of government.

This line of thinking blew into public view this weekend, via an interview Justice Samuel Alito gave to the Wall Street Journal editorial board:

Justice Alito says he voluntarily follows disclosure statutes that apply to lower-court judges and executive-branch officials; so do the other justices. But he notes that “Congress did not create the Supreme Court”—the Constitution did. “I know this is a controversial view, but I’m willing to say it,” he says. “No provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court—period.”

Alito’s comments ensured that this debate about Congress’ powers over the Supreme Court (or lack thereof) will continue to occupy Washington. Meanwhile, CNN reported yesterday that Chief Justice John Roberts has been “seeking unanimity among the nine justices for firm ethics standards” — ones that would come from the justices themselves, rather than Congress — but so far the justices have been unsuccessful reaching an agreement.

More news to know.

Devon Archer, a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s, testified Monday that the First Son sold associates the “illusion of access” to his father by putting the elder Biden on speaker phone during business dinners. The future president and his son never discussed business on these calls, Archer said.

President Biden has decided to keep U.S. Space Command in Colorado, reversing a Trump-era plan to move the command to Alabama.

Ron DeSantis isn’t the only presidential candidate with a spending problem. Donald Trump has spent millions more than he’s raised this year, per Politico.

A Georgia judge rejected Trump’s attempt to halt the Fulton County DA’s investigation into him, as Atlanta begins setting up security measures ahead of an expected indictment.

Quote of the Day: “I’ve said we gotta figure out, we got to find some judge in Florida that’ll indict DeSantis quick, to close this indictment gap” — Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), a DeSantis endorser, to the Miami Herald

The day ahead.

At the White House: President Biden is on vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, all week.

At the Capitol: Congress is on recess.

In the courts: The D.C. grand jury investigating Trump is expected to meet today.

Before I go...

Here’s something fun: Two groups of interns for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) competed to see who could get selfies with all 100 senators. Murkowski’s July intern class won, notching their final selfie with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) just before the chamber left for August recess.

“Hands down, it was probably the best month of my life,” Ellie Shaw, one of the interns, said. “Especially from Alaska, you don’t really get opportunities like this a lot.”

Read more from the Washington Post on how they did it.

Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe