7 min read

A big picture look at the political scene

As an anxious pall hangs after Washington, a look at where the various political players stand.
A big picture look at the political scene
(Image by DALL-E)

Good morning: it’s Monday, September 11, 2023. The 2024 elections are 411 days away. Today is the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

As Washington continues to wake up from its summer slumber, there’s a fair bit of anxiety in the air.

Whispers of impeachments and shutdowns abound, looming over officials in both parties who’d very much prefer to avoid either. Democrats are engaged in a new cycle of hand-wringing about their 2024 pick, while Trump-skeptical Republicans are somewhere between “denial” and “despair,” according to the Times. (Curiously enough, the only campaign that seems free of this anxious pall is the one whose candidate faces four indictments.)

With that as our background, I thought it would be a good time to take a quick tour of the political landscape — offering an overview of where things sit and checking in with Washington’s various power players as we creep toward the final quarter of the year.

As we speak, Air Force One is somewhere between Hanoi, Vietnam, and Anchorage, Alaska, carrying President Joe Biden and a phalanx of his handlers. Biden is returning from a two-stop foreign trip with a basket of deliverables: he helped broker an infrastructure deal with G20 leaders in New Delhi, then inked a new strategic partnership with Vietnam, along with other moves aimed at countering China.

Biden views foreign policy as his bread and butter — even if it is the issue area that first sent his approval ratings spiraling downward. For the White House, the jam-packed Asia trip also offers an opportunity to prove Biden’s vitality, in response to a series of bruising polls on the president’s age. After an Axios story on Biden’s basement campaign, several Biden allies took to Twitter/X to highlight how many leaders he spoke to in India (19) and the number of items on his schedule today (10; he won’t get back to the White House until after midnight). A new campaign ad centering his secret trip to Ukraine seeks to make the same point.

But the reality is, even if Biden has continued humming along with his official schedule, he has only held one campaign rally since announcing his re-election bid in April. (His own campaign ads also tend not to show him speaking, Axios notes.) With each week, his political vulnerabilities grow more apparent: his age, his inability to persuade voters of the success of “Bidenomics,” a brewing migrant crisis, the looming criminal trial for his son Hunter.

Biden’s aversion to campaigning is matched only by Donald Trump, who is similarly floating far ahead of his primary rivals without so much as lifting a finger.

Trump’s visit to Iowa on Sunday for the Iowa-Iowa State football game — where he flipped burgers and visited a frat house during a tailgate — was his first stop in the first-in-the-nation caucus state in the last month. Per Politico, Trump has been more engaged behind the scenes, uncharacteristically content to stay out of public view and instead play the role of party boss in the smoke-filled room, dialing state officials and vanquished rivals.

Meanwhile, members of the ex-president’s orbit are beginning to grow worried about Iowa, where some think his 28-point lead belies a vulnerability and lack of organizing on the ground. That at least gives Ron DeSantis something to cling onto; however, it’s probably not great news that there’s been more coverage lately of who Trump will pick as vice president than anything DeSantis has said or done.

Leaks are beginning to spill out that DeSantis is unhappy with his operation (no kidding), especially his super PAC chief Jeff Roe. Now, his campaign is trying to lower expectations even further, arguing that he only needs a “strong second-place showing” in Iowa to resuscitate his effort. (Reality check: he needs to win, or at least come awfully close.)

At the end of the day, basically nothing in the primary has changed since the first debate: DeSantis hasn’t picked up any ground; the Vivek bubble has mostly popped; Nikki Haley’s efforts to shower attention on a CNN poll showing her as the GOP’s most electable option have, so far, failed to convince primary voters. Many Republicans are looking past the primary, girding themselves for a third presidential campaign with Trump as their nominee — and focusing on looking for ways to make their abortion stance more politically palatable.

Speaking of Republicans, the party is starkly divided on Capitol Hill. The House gets back from recess tomorrow; in the words of one GOP congressman, Speaker Kevin McCarthy faces a “perfect storm” upon his return. McCarthy faces pressure from his right to move forward with impeachment, stop a new package of Ukraine aid, and load up spending bills with conservative priorities — all while juggling a four-seat majority.

On all of these issues, McCarthy faces opposition from his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, who is still seeking to persuade the political world he is fine after two freezing episodes. While the House spending process has been nastily partisan, McConnell’s Senate Republicans have worked with Chuck Schumer and his Democrats; the upper chamber is poised to advance three spending bills this week with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Of course, there is no hope that Congress will finish its spending work by the September 30 deadline, which means lawmakers will need to pass a “continuing resolution” — a stopgap extension — to avoid a shutdown. Senate leaders, McConnell especially, have been insistent that the CR include Ukraine aid, which will be a tough sell with McCarthy’s conference. McCarthy will likely send over a CR that only adds spending for disaster relief, at which point the Senate could try to jam him last-minute by sending back a version that also funds Ukraine — giving McCarthy the choice to either swallow the measure or accept a shutdown.

If McCarthy bends, Freedom Caucus troublemakers are gearing up to end his speakership. Matt Gaetz has taken to trolling McCarthy by musing aloud about how many Democrats might join in on a vote to oust the speaker if one is triggered.

“How many votes can you deliver against a Motion to Table a Motion to Vacate, Eric?” Gaetz recently asked Rep. Eric Swalwell, a not-so-subtle target considering McCarthy’s hatred for the Democrat. “Asking for (many) friends!”

That will be the mood music for Washington these next few weeks and months. It’s a lot, but don’t worry: I’ll be here to walk you through all of it. If you appreciate my work, here’s the link to donate. And don’t forget to spread the word about WUTP: tell your friends to sign up here.

More news to know.

(Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Nancy Pelosi is running again.

Kim Jong Un is believed to be on a train bound for Russia.

Even some Democrats have criticized Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) after she suspended the right to carry firearms in public in Albuquerque.

The death toll in the Morrocco earthquake has reached 2,497.

A road trip with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm highlighted the obstacles facing the transition to electric vehicles.

The Fifth Circuit appeals court curbed the Biden administration’s contacts with social media companies.

A Georgia judge blocked Mark Meadows’ attempt to move his criminal case to federal court.

Plus, two reads lovers of political history will enjoy:

The day ahead.

(Screengrab by Craig Caplan)

Biden in Hanoi: President Joe Biden is currently flying back from Vietnam, where he met with the president, prime minister, and other officials earlier this morning. While in Hanoi, Biden also visited the John Sidney McCain III Memorial, paying homage to the site where his late friend and longtime colleague was held as a prisoner of war.

Remembering 9/11: Later today, on his way back from Vietnam, Biden will mark 9/11 by delivering remarks to service members at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Anchorage, Alaska. The other White House principals will mark the anniversary at the sites where the four planes crashed: Vice President Kamala Harris in New York City, First Lady Jill Biden at the Pentagon, and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

On the Hill: The Senate will vote to advance Tanya Bradsher’s nomination to be Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The House returns from recess tomorrow.

Before I go...

Here are some impactful reads on the 22nd anniversary of 9/11:

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