Good morning! It’s Wednesday, December 21, 2022. The 2024 elections are 685 days away.
It’s a big day in Washington, as Congress continues working on the omnibus spending bill, the January 6th committee releases its report, and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky comes to town.
I have more on all of that below, and will have a full report-on-the-report tomorrow after it comes out. But first: I didn’t want to let 2022 end without taking a look at the power players who defined this year, and taking stock of where they stand as 2023 begins.
Who’s up, who’s down heading into 2023
With 10 days left to go in 2022, it’s the perfect time to take a step back and survey the political scene as one year ends and another begins. Where do the various figures populating our political landscape stand heading into 2023? Whose position has been strengthened over the course of this year, and who has been weakened?
Let’s take a look.
The White House and those seeking it
One of the year’s biggest winners, at least if you compare his position now to when 2022 began, is undoubtedly President Joe Biden.
It was almost exactly one year ago that Biden’s domestic agenda was effectively tanked by a Joe Manchin appearance on Fox News, and the subsequent White House statement trashing him — which further angered the West Virginian and stalled any negotiations for months. Biden entered 2022 with little expectation of legislative success, and facing wide consensus that his party would experience big losses in the midterm elections.
Instead, as we all know, Democrats staved off the worst in November, with Biden becoming the first president since FDR not to lose a single senator in the midterms and notching historic state legislative gains as well. “Build Back Better” also came back from the dead, and Biden was able to pass a slimmed-down version of the package, as well as bipartisan bills on gun control, manufacturing, veterans’ health, and marriage equality.
But let’s be clear about the challenges he still faces going into 2023: Republicans did still win back the House, after all, and Biden’s team is reportedly nervous about the coming investigations into the Afghanistan withdrawal and other topics. (Hunter Biden, who could face an indictment in 2023, will also be a top target.)
The next few months will also be a key test of whether the 80-year-old is ready for a re-election bid, which could be announced soon if Jill Biden signs off over the holidays. (It appears she will.) It’s also worth noting that Biden’s average approval rating is effectively unmoved from where it was a year ago, with no bump awarded after the midterms: it stood at 43.4% on December 21, 2021. It stands at 43.3% today.
Meanwhile, Biden’s loyal deputy Kamala Harris’ position is about even from where she started 2022. Moments like the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade that were supposed to rebrand Harris nationally came and went without strengthening her status, although the veep says now that she won’t have to break ties in a 50-50 Senate in 2023, it will make a “big difference” in what she’s able to get done.
Her husband Doug Emhoff is reportedly telling Democrats they have to rally around Harris if Biden sits out 2024, but the signs are zero that Pete Buttigieg — already gearing up for a possible run — and others would do so.
On the other side of the aisle, Biden’s begrudging predecessor and aspiring successor Donald Trump is, in the recent words of his frenemy chronicler Maggie Haberman, a “shrunken presence on the political landscape.” That’s been true due to outside events (a disastrous midterms for his candidates, heightened investigations) but also those of his own making (a dinner with anti-semites, his NFT faceplant). Gone are the days of his big, rollicking rallies; his 2024 campaign has mostly consisted of posts on Truth Social (which get much less attention than his erstwhile tweets), without any campaign travel to speak of.
After a series of scandals that have become the familiar background noise of politics for the past six years, it turns out that what it really took for Trump’s GOP stock to plummet was for him to lose them elections. He could still win the nomination, of course — the polling is checkered, but average out to Trump holding a lead — but there’s no question that Ron DeSantis is the Republican winner of 2022, the darling of both the party elite and base (for now) after transforming Florida into a red state and winning by 19 points.
The challenge for DeSantis going forward will be whether he can consolidate GOP support enough to avoid a 2016-like situation where Trump is able to coast to the top of a crowded field. The Florida governor has a much better shot at 45 if he can muscle the likes of Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Mike Pompeo, etc. out of the way.
“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” the former president Truth’d this week. So far, of course, he’s mostly been right; will 2023 be the year that changes?
Under the dome
Over on Capitol Hill, Chuck Schumer is also ending the year happily after Raphael Warnock’s win grew his majority, giving Democratic chairman subpoena power and allowing the New Yorker to rush more Biden nominees to the floor. (Yes, Kyrsten Sinema’s defection causes big problems for Dems in 2024, but for the purposes of day-to-day Senate life, the party remains in charge.)
Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, is basking in tributes as she prepares to hand off her leadership post to Hakeem Jeffries, who will spend 2023 finding his footing after catapulting from the No. 4 House Democrat to No. 1. As I’ve written, since she’s staying in the House, how Pelosi handles her sudden status as a backbencher will be interesting to watch. (By the way, the recent HBO documentary on her was also interesting viewing, a study on accumulating — and keeping — power in Washington.)
Where does Kevin McCarthy stand? It’s still a bit hazy, but I promise you it’s not where he thought he’d be a year ago. McCarthy thought 2022 would be the year he would pick up 60 seats, dethrone Pelosi, and be crowned the new House speaker. Instead, he is the putative leader of a five-seat majority — and he is still scrambling to find the votes to be elected speaker, as Matt Gaetz and others threaten a rebellion.
Politico reported this morning that House GOP second-in-command Steve Scalise, while ostensibly in McCarthy’s corner, is preparing for a possible promotion, just as Paul Ryan slid into the speakership when it similarly slipped from McCarthy’s grasp seven years ago.
If McCarthy does win the top spot — he’s still favored, but it could come at significant cost depending what he concedes to Gaetz & co — it will be worth watching his working relationship with his Senate counterpart Mitch McConnell. In the process of winning over conservatives, McCarthy effectively promised this week that any McConnell bill would be “dead on the arrival” in the House if he becomes speaker. That sounds like a problem! (Understanding a thing or two about what it takes to accumulate power himself, McConnell says he is still “pulling” for McCarthy.)
As for rank-and-file members, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has essentially gone from a pariah to a power center over the course of the year, showing impressive political savvy lately with her advocacy for McCarthy (even if it’s led to a split with Lauren Boebert.) If a McCarthy speakership materializes, she’s likely guaranteed herself an investigative megaphone on the Oversight committee and ensured that her demands cannot be ignored, since he’ll owe her quite a bit.
Other Republicans like Jim Comer and Jim Jordan, incoming Oversight and Judiciary chairs, respectively, will also gain big platforms next year investigating Alejandro Mayorkas and others in Bidenworld.
Speaking of investigations, there’s also the January 6th committee, which was scorned for parts of the year by pundits but eventually churned out blockbuster hearings that many Democrats now think helped keep Trump in the spotlight and minimize the GOP’s midterm victories.
The panel’s thousand-page final report is expected to drop today, but the panel’s real legacy — more than symbolic criminal referrals — could depend on the thousands of pages of evidence it is currently turning over to Special Counsel Jack Smith, whose investigation will continue after the 1/6 committee folds in the new year.
One element of the report I’ll be watching is whether it’s all about Trump, or whether it also delves into the very real law enforcement failures that took place that day. There have already been reports of a split within the committee, with soon-to-be-free-agent Liz Cheney pushing for a Trump-only focus and panel staffers hoping to go broader.
Outside the beltway
This may be a hot take, but I think California Gov. Gavin Newsom ends the year with his stock at a low. Newsom had been steadily amping up his criticism of national Democrats all year, readying himself to move into pole position once Biden would inevitably face calls to step aside after the Democrats’ expected losses. That didn’t happen, of course. Now his critiques look more opportunistic than prescient and it’s possible that, if Biden does run in 2024, he’ll have missed his best shot at the White House.
Other Democratic governors and governors-elect who branded themselves more as “team players” in 2022, like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, Maryland’s Wes Moore, and Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro, all boast veritable rising star status and will likely spend 2023 jostling for national attention. In WUTP style, I’m compelled to remind you that the 2028 election is only 2,148 days away, after all. (Sorry.)
On the campaign trail, Republican Kari Lake and Democrat Stacey Abrams both end the year down from where they started it. Yes, Abrams deserves some credit for Warnock’s victory, but her concurrent 7.5-point defeat — which left her campaign more than $1 million in debt — probably leaves her without much of a route forward in Democratic politics.
Lake, meanwhile, is basically the only Republican who took up Trump’s election denier mantle after the 2022 midterms. (Even Doug Mastriano conceded.) For someone who earlier in the year was being heralded as the new “leading lady of Trumpism,” it’s an embarrassing way to go out. But her false election claims are about to go on trial, and one shouldn’t discount that she will use the opportunity to springboard towards a 2024 Senate run (or even still Trump’s vice presidency).
On the flip side of Abrams, her two-time opponent Brian Kemp turned out an impressive victory even as Democrats won the Senate, although he has largely been overshadowed by DeSantis. Kemp is a leader of what you could call the “lost generation of Republican talent”: people like Larry Hogan who have showed impressive electoral skill but have little hope nationally purely because they’ve tangled with Trump, the 800-pound gorilla. (You can also place in this category Ben Sasse, who is about to prematurely trade away his spot in the Senate for the presidency of the Uni...versity of Florida.)
The true Republican “it guy” is Lee Zeldin, who came within five points of winning New York’s governorship and is now being talked about for jobs from RNC chairman to speaker of the House. He has denied interest in either, though, and he will now have to come to grips with his very own Beto problem (being from Missouri, I call it the Jason Kander problem): he is a rising star in his party left without much room for advancement if he can’t win statewide in the place he calls home.
Conversely, New York Democrats (including outgoing DCCC chairman Sean Patrick Maloney, who lost his own seat) are in a for a reckoning next year, almost singlehandedly responsible for losing the House for their party after the “red wave” crashed pretty much only there. This week brought the embarrassing discovery that they couldn’t even beat a Republican (George Santos) who was faking, uh, his entire résumé.
Other power players
The most powerful unelected job in Washington might be Jerome Powell’s: it’s becoming possible that the Fed chairman might pull off a “soft landing,” but his interest rate moves going into 2023 will be crucial as he attempts to tamp down inflation without sparking a recession, with all the human and political consequences that would come with it.
Then again, the “imperial” justices of the Supreme Court would quibble with that title. After a year in which they shaped a midterm election, and claimed more power from the other branches, 2023 could prove even more consequential for “The Nine,” with decisions on the “independent state legislature theory,” affirmative action, LGBT rights, and more expected during the end-of-term crunch in June.
Moving over to the tech sector, Elon Musk says he plans to step aside as Twitter CEO (“as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job”), but don’t expect him to fall away from political conversations any time soon; even if some are threatening to leave, Twitter remains the political town square for lawmakers and journalists alike. At the very least, Musk will likely be hauled before Congress next year to discuss the “Twitter Files” (by House Republicans) and his new policies at the platform (by Senate Democrats).
In general, Big Tech could be one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement we see in 2023 (not in a way Silicon Valley will like). I’ll especially be watching whether any action comes on TikTok, the platform that has quickly become a leading news source (and search engine) for many of my friends.
The New York Times calls the future of the Chinese-owned platform a “diplomatic crisis” in the making; several GOP governors have already begun banning the app from state government devices due to serious cybersecurity concerns. The federal government is poised to follow this week, with lawmakers including a Josh Hawley bill to that effect in the omnibus spending bill.
🇺🇦 Happening today: Zelensky to D.C.
Ukrainian president Volodmyr Zelensky is traveling to Washington today, his first trip outside of Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion in February. Plans of the visit were closely held for security reasons; lawmakers rushed back to D.C. last night after reports of the trip began to leak out.
The visit comes at a key moment in the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, as Congress is on the verge of approving another $44 billion in aid for Ukraine as part of the omnibus spending bill — potentially the last major aid package in the coming months. Almost all House Republicans are expected to oppose the measure and some have signaled plans to shrink U.S. support for Ukraine once they move into the majority in January.
Zelensky will have a chance today to make his case directly to GOP lawmakers: he is slated to address a joint session of Congress while he is in town. Zelensky will also meet with President Biden, who is set to announce a new $1.8 billion shipment of Ukraine aid — already approved by Congress — which will include Patriot missiles for the first time.
💸 Trump tax returns to be released
The House Ways and Means Committee voted on Tuesday to release six years of former President Trump’s tax returns. The panel obtained the returns from the IRS after a years-long legal battle, invoking a 1924 law that allows the committee to request any taxpayer’s documents.
Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) said the returns would be made public in “a few days,” as committee staff first need to redact Social Security numbers and other personal information. Neal also revealed that the IRS refrained from auditing Trump’s tax returns for the first two years of his White House tenure — despite an agency policy that is supposed to require audits of the sitting president. (The IRS eventually launched an audit after congressional pressure, but Neal said it was never completed.)
The committee’s vote was 24-16, precisely along party lines. Ranking member Kevin Brady (R-TX) warned that Democrats were launching a “dangerous new political weapon” that they would soon “come to regret.”
🚨 More news you should know
➞ “Trump’s former White House ethics lawyer told Cassidy Hutchinson to give misleading testimony to January 6 committee, sources say” [CNN]
➞ “DEA seized enough fentanyl in 2022 to kill everyone in the U.S.” [Axios]
➞ “Taliban bans women and girls from attending universities in Afghanistan” [CBS]
➞ Plus, a piece of history: Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) delivered his farewell address on Tuesday as he prepares to step down after 48 years in the Senate. His tenure — which included three committee chairmanships and five Batman cameos — is the third-longest in U.S. Senate history.
🗓 What your leaders are doing today
All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch or listen to it.
President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing in the morning (9 am). Later, he will welcome President Zelensky of Ukraine to the White House (2 pm), meet with him in the Oval Office (2:30 pm), and participate in a joint press conference with him (4:30 pm).
Vice President Harris will join Biden for his sit-down with Zelensky.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre does not have a press briefing scheduled due to Biden’s press conference.
Tracy is a longtime career Foreign Service official who has served as the U.S. ambassador to Armenia since 2019 and previously served as the No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Moscow. She will be the first woman to serve in the high-profile post, which has taken on new importance in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Senate may also vote on final passage of the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package, which was advanced in a 70-25 vote on Tuesday. The chamber would need sign-off from all 100 senators to rush to a final vote today — which it just might get, as senators hope to get home before Christmas (and an approaching winter storm).
- The Equal Pay for Team USA Act, which would require all athletes representing the U.S. in international competitions to receive equal compensation regardless of gender (a result of the U.S. women’s soccer team’s years-long fight for equal pay).
- The Respect for Child Survivors Act, which would require the FBI to include trauma-informed experts in all interviews with child abuse victims (a result of retired gymnast McKayla Maroney’s testimony about how she was mistreated by FBI interviewers during the Larry Nassar investigation).
- A bill to posthumously award the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest honor awarded by Congress — to Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old who was killed in a 1955 lynching, and his late mother Mamie Till-Mobley, who was famously photographed with his open casket.
Both chambers of Congress will convene for a joint session to hear remarks from Ukrainian president Zelensky (7:30 pm).
The Supreme Court is out this week.
👍 Thanks for reading.
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