Good morning! It’s Tuesday, March 14, 2023. The 2024 elections are 605 days away.
I’m back! Thanks for your patience while I was on Spring Break. I missed writing WUTP, of course — just as I can only assume you all missed me — but I do believe firmly in the importance of taking breaks and stepping away every once in a while, as I’ve written about before.
Politics, after all, can be a stressful business to read and write about. In fact, that was the thrust of a piece in The Atlantic yesterday by Shadi Hamid, provocatively headlined “You’re Better Off Not Knowing.”
Hamid is correct that, empirically speaking, knowing a lot about politics and the news is not always best for one’s stress levels. But, in a representative democracy, it’s also critically important. So I don’t think the answer is necessarily, as Hamid prescribes, to “disengage from the constant assault of politics” — but rather to engage with it in more healthy ways.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make WUTP one of those healthy ways. My goal is to only cover the news that truly does matter to you as a voter (or future voter), and to do so in a way that calmly explains things and doesn’t raise your heart rate. I hope you find that to be the case.
I also hope you got on all right without WUTP these past two weeks. Although maybe it meant you pulled back temporarily from your news intake along with me, and maybe that’s not the worst thing. We can all use a break.
Three major 2024 developments I missed
One thing that did not pause over the past two weeks was the 2024 presidential contest, which has heated up significantly in a short amount of time.
Before I dive in: Yes, I know it is still only 2023, a full 20 months out from the election. I can already hear your groans. But if you doubt that the developments at this early stage matter, I would direct you to Nate Cohn’s recent piece in the New York Times. As Cohn shows, the polling leaders at this point in a presidential cycle have almost always gone on to win their party’s nomination. So the movements going on now really do tell us something about the eventual result.
Still, as the pre-campaign marches on, I will try never to cover the horse race for the horse race’s sake. The developments I’m covering today all have important, broader ramifications — for policy, for the directions of the two parties, and for the historic matter of a former president who could soon face criminal charges.
I. Biden’s center pivot.
“Three’s a trend,” journalists like to say. Well, Monday made four notable moves by President Joe Biden towards the ideological center, so it’s officially a pattern worth taking note of. They are:
- His recent budget request, which proposed nearly $3 trillion in deficit reduction, not traditionally a liberal priority.
- His endorsement of a Republican bill blocking a new D.C. criminal code, which blindsided congressional Democrats.
- His “Trump-esque” changes to the immigration system, which will severely curtail access to asylum, and his consideration of restarting migrant family detention.
- His approval on Monday of the Willow Project, a major oil drilling project in Alaska opposed by environmentalists.
Together, these moves suggest Biden is moving towards a re-election campaign — and preparing to target moderate and independent voters, seeking to remind them of his centrist roots.
Per the New York Times, Biden 2024 is poised to launch in April, the same month that he announced his 2020 presidential bid and that Obama launched his 2012 re-election.
💡 What to watch: Can Biden preserve the Democratic big tent?
Biden has managed to keep Democratic moderates and liberals united over the course of his presidency and has, so far, avoided a major primary challenge from his left (unless you count Marianne Williamson). But the reality remains that the prospect of a second Biden term is still deeply unpopular among Democratic voters, with majorities expressing in poll after poll that they’d prefer someone else.
To win in 2024, he will not only need Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren united behind him — which they still are — but their cohorts of voters as well. I pay particularly close attention to young voters, whom Biden made sure to shower with gratitude after their pivotal role in the 2022 midterms. Here’s how one prominent young climate activist, Zero Hour co-founder Jamie Margolin, responded to his Monday move:
“In approving the #WillowProject, @POTUS has chosen to betray every single young person who put him in office under the condition he would fight the existential threat of the climate crisis.”
Will the 2024 election ultimately hinge on one Alaska drilling decision? Almost certainly not. But still not the rhetoric you want to hear if you’re an 80-year-old president currying votes from the generation of your grandchildren. (Unless you’ve calculated that umbrage from the climate left can score you more points elsewhere, that is.)
II. Prosecutors circle Trump.
Meanwhile, “former president and maybe future president” — in Biden’s words — Donald Trump was in Iowa on Monday, seeking votes from the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
It was a sign that he will continue to campaign as normal, even as a potential game-changer hangs in the offing: Trump could soon become the first former president in American history to face criminal charges.
Trump was invited last week to testify before a Manhattan grand jury investigating his 2016 hush payment to porn star Stormy Daniels; a defendant being invited to testify is generally a sign that a prosecutor is about to bring charges.
The legal case against Trump is far from cut-and-dried, likely relying on a complex layering of two statutes on top of each other. Per CNN, Trump would likely be charged with falsifying business records relating to his reimbursement of former lawyer Michael Cohen, who made the payment to Daniels.
However, that crime would only be a misdemeanor. To elevate it to a felony, the Democratic district attorney would have to show that the fraud came as part of a second crime, which in this case would likely be a violation of election law (under the theory that Cohen’s payment to Daniels constituted an unreported in-kind donation to the Trump campaign).
As the Washington Post explains:
“It would be unusual for a state prosecutor to use an alleged violation of a federal law, rather than of a state campaign finance law, as grounds to elevate a false-paperwork case from a misdemeanor to a felony. But it would also be unusual to prosecute a presidential candidate for violating state — as opposed to federal — campaign finance law.”
Trump has “no plans” to accept the invitation to testify, his lawyer told ABC News on Monday.
💡 What to watch: Would an indictment spark a “rally-around-the-Trump” effect?
Back in August, when the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago as part of a separate criminal investigation, the conventional wisdom was that it only aided Trump among Republicans, who quickly united behind Trump in condemning the search.
Would Republicans, including his primary rivals, join in on his attacks on the legal system they have echoed for years if he is indicted? Or will they take this opportunity to cut him loose for good, as many expected party leaders would after January 6th?
Over the summer, Ron DeSantis called the FBI raid a “weaponization of federal agencies.” This time, they might be running against each other; will the Florida governor take the same tune, or spy a chance to move in for the kill?
There is no precedent for a party’s presidential frontrunner being charged with a crime, so we are firmly in uncharted territory here. (Not to mention that charging decisions are “imminent” in an Atlanta prosecutor’s investigation of Trumpworld as well.) One thing is clear: criminal charges would not clear Trump from the race. He promised last week that he would stay in the contest even if indicted.
III. DeSantis is all but running.
A bestselling book. A multi-state tour with stops in Iowa and New Hampshire. A shiny new 501(c)(4) fundraising vehicle and retreats with major donors.
Those are the actions of two types of people: those who are running for president, and those who won’t admit they are running for president.
Ron DeSantis is, for now, in the latter camp. He is not expected to announce a presidential bid until May, after the Florida legislative session ends, but he is already putting together a campaign team and telling allies he will run, according to the Washington Post.
In the meantime, he is expected to use the legislative session to score policy wins and burnish his record as the MAGA standard-bearer who actually gets things done. Here’s a preview from the Times:
‘[The legislature is poised to pass bills to] allow Floridians to carry concealed weapons without a permit or training. Ban diversity and equity programs at public universities. Expand school vouchers. Allow a death sentence without a unanimous jury. Make it easier to sue the news media. Further restrict abortion.”
He is also slowly clarifying his positions on national policy, including telling Tucker Carlson last night that aiding Ukraine is not one of the U.S.’ “vital national interests.” (Whether it is him or Trump, then, the 2024 Republican presidential nominee will likely be a skeptic of assisting Ukraine, a major development.)
Republicans, including many former Trump allies, are giddy at the prospect of DeSantis jumping in the race. Several top Republican donors have already defected to the governor, while former Trump immigration official Ken Cuccinelli has launched a PAC to support him.
“Come on Ron, your country needs you!” Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA), an early Trump supporter, exhorted in a recent tweet.
💡 What to watch: How does DeSantis perform on the stump?
The main Republican fear about DeSantis is that he is too wooden and awkward to perform on the presidential level, adding significant pressure to his early pre-campaign stops.
So far, the reviews are decidedly mixed. The Washington Post approvingly noted that DeSantis “lingered for roughly half an hour” after a recent speech, “signing books and holding babies,” while the New York Times included an amusing anecdote about the governor puzzling a University of Florida mother from Iowa about a new education policy when a personal touch probably would have been better.
His ongoing book tour is a chance to test his retail skills before launching a campaign, and potentially confound his image as more Al Gore than Bill Clinton.
In a sign of the challenges he’ll face on the stump, Trump stopped in the same Iowa town (Davenport) on Monday that DeSantis visited on Friday. DeSantis drew 1,000 people, certainly a respectable showing. But 2,400 cheering fans came out for Trump’s event, with even more unable to fit in the auditorium.
What else I’m watching.
SVB FALLOUT: Lawmakers from both parties have quickly chosen their favored culprits after the collapses of Silicon Valley and Signature Banks, the second- and third-largest bank failures in U.S. history. Democrats are blaming a Trump-era law rolling back regulations on mid-sized banks, while Republicans have sought to tie the bank failures to their campaign against “wokeness” and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
- “Americans can rest assured that our banking system is safe,” President Biden promised in a speech on Monday, outlining the steps his administration has taken to protect both banks’ depositors. Fears lingered throughout the financial system, however, as regional bank stocks tumbled and the Fed was left wrestling with whether to continue its interest rate crusade.
CULTURE WARS: Biden tends to stay away from cultural issues, veteran journalist Ron Brownstein recently noted, preferring to stick to messaging about the economy. But he waded into the ongoing battles over LGBT issues during an interview with “The Daily Show” on Monday night.
- “What’s going on in Florida is, as my mother would say, close to sinful,” Biden told guest host Kal Penn, referring to proposed legislation to ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors.
HEALTH UPDATES: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was discharged from the hospital on Monday after being treated for a concussion and a rib fracture due to a recent fall. The 81-year-old will now go to a rehab facility; per a spokesperson, his recovery is “proceeding well.”
- Former President Jimmy Carter, 98, remains on hospice care. Biden revealed at a California fundraiser Monday night that “they found a way to keep him going for a lot longer than they anticipated because they found a breakthrough” — and that Carter had asked Biden to deliver his eulogy. “Excuse me, I shouldn’t say that,” the president quickly added, catching himself.
WHITE HOUSE: President Biden will deliver remarks on gun violence in Monterey Park, California, where 11 people were killed in a mass shooting during a Chinese New Year celebration in January. He will also sign an executive order aiming to move the U.S. closer to universal background checks.
- Later tonight, Biden will headline a Democratic Party fundraiser in Las Vegas.
Vice President Harris has nothing on her public schedule.
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will headline a pair of fundraisers in San Antonio, Texas.
CONGRESS: The Senate has one vote scheduled, on advancing Brent Neiman’s nomination to be Deputy Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Finance and Development.
The House has no votes scheduled.
COURTS: The Supreme Court has no oral arguments today.
Before I go...
Around the world, today is known as “Pi Day” (3/14, get it?) But in my hometown, where the area code is 314, we prefer to call it “St. Louis Day.”
So here’s a fun St. Louis story to start your day: One of the players on STL’s new MLS team is only 17 years old.
Miguel Perez, the third-youngest player in the league, started in a game for the first time this weekend, aiding St. Louis City SC in its 2-1 win against the Portland Timbers. Then, on Monday, “Miggy” — as he goes by — was back to classes at Pattonville High School, where he’s a senior.
“The first thing I look at with young players is confidence,” one teammate told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of Perez, “and he’s got it.”
Thanks for reading.
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