In this edition: Seven questions for the new political year, an interview with Rick Perlstein and the first intra-GOP primary battle over former president Donald Trump.

I can’t believe Joe Biden is the first president to say “folks” in an inaugural address, and this is The Trailer.

This will also be the last edition of the newsletter for a few weeks, as the work of governing (temporarily) overwhelms the drama of elections — and as your author takes a brief vacation.

To paraphrase our 44th president and his thoughts about Wednesday’s inauguration: That was weird. A new president had never taken office under the conditions imposed on Washington yesterday, with block after block closed by the National Guard, Metro stations shut for days and crowds purposefully kept away from the Mall. 

The defining image of Inauguration Day 2017 was a gaggle of cameramen photographing a flaming trash can. The most telling thing I saw this time was a group of cameramen walking over to the only protester who seemed interested in yelling at the 50-odd antiabortion activists who had shown up in the “free-speech zone.” Whether a president’s condemning “American carnage” or calling repeatedly for “unity,” the search is on for conflict.

Do Senate Democrats bust the filibuster? There’s one Democratic agenda if they do, and a whole different one if they don’t. At the moment, after the dismantling of Senate filibuster rules that cover nominations, Democrats can confirm any judge or political appointee without a single Republican vote. But they can only pass one kind of legislation with 51 votes — budget reconciliation, the once-a-year process that Democrats used to pass Bill Clinton’s tax package in 1993 and Republicans used to pass the Trump tax cuts in 2017.

Both of those packages transformed the economy, but Democrats have priorities they can’t pass this way — like their first piece of 2021 legislation, a For the People Act, which would make voter registration much easier, restore lost pieces of the Voting Rights Act, require more campaign finance disclosure (like presidential candidates’ tax returns) and more. Republicans oppose it, but unlike last year, Democrats can schedule a vote on it.

Nothing would remake Washington like a conflict over legislation that ends the filibuster. Doing so would almost certainly lead to statehood for Washington, D.C., and possibly Puerto Rico, setting up two or four new Senate elections in 2022. (Republicans claim that this would create at least two permanent Democratic seats in the Senate, which isn’t hyperbole considering their party’s irrelevance in D.C.) 

In 2013, the last time Democrats controlled the Senate and changed its rules, they waited months before ending the filibuster on most nominees. What would be the tinder for burning the legislative filibuster? Liberals have ideas (the pro-union PRO Act, any voting rights legislation, statehood), but there’s one Washington where they stop short of this and another where they blaze ahead, narrowly passing whatever legislation they want. If there doesn’t seem to be a plan, that’s because there isn’t one: The new White House, for example, is more interested in finding Republican votes to pass its coronavirus relief bill than who the new chairs of the key committees are.

How much do Republicans in the states resist President Biden? Twelve years ago, after pulling teeth to pass their stimulus package, Democrats faced an unexpected roadblock: Republican governors who didn’t want the money. After most Republican attorneys general sued to overturn the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of the law’s Medicaid expansion funding; most Republican-led states did so.

The next wave of resistance began during the transition period, with the outgoing administration approving Tennessee’s request to transform its federal share of Medicaid funding into a block grant, and the state’s GOP government beating the clock to accept it. The Biden administration isn’t going to let that happen anymore — it’s more likely to approve waivers that allow expanded coverage — but it could lead to clashes between Washington and Republican leaders in the states.

Liberals, with bitter memories of the tea party movement, are already girding for this. Indivisible, the liberal grass-roots group founded after Donald Trump’s 2016 win, published a guide for activists this month that predicted a four-step crisis for Democrats. In full. One: “Expect the GOP to obstruct, delay, and engage in bad faith.” Two: “Prepare to counter a grassroots conservative backlash.” Three: “Expect congressional Democrats to get cold feet.” Four: “Go big, go fast, get it right.” They expect, in other words, a repeat of 2009, only with Republicans in control of more states where they can pass legislation to roll back voting laws.

What does “unity” mean? Ironically, the first argument of the Biden era is over the definition of the president’s campaign motto. The Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol made Biden’s job easier by dividing his opponents into camps. The vast majority were Republicans who Biden said he could do business with. The fringe were racists that had no place in a democracy.

“Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear and demonization have long torn us apart,” Biden said in his inaugural address. He wasn’t talking about Republicans, but conservatives have already suggested that Biden was taking about them. 

“Much of [the speech] is thinly veiled innuendo calling us white supremacists, calling us racists, calling us every name in the book, calling us people who don’t tell the truth,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said last night on Fox News.

Paul was on defense, like a lot of Republicans. The investigations into the riot will last weeks, months or longer, with arrests still being made and a president uninterested in pardoning the offenders. Republicans don’t yet know what influence the former president will have in the party — we don’t even know if he can ever return to Twitter — and are divided on what he should do. (Their pleas for Biden to call off an impeachment trial will go unheeded.) Republicans will portray Biden as divisive and intolerant of conservatives’ views, from gender to abortion to regulation. How much of their energy will be spent recasting fights as Biden vs. Trump, a battle they already lost?

What happens to direct action? Trump’s inauguration in 2017 was followed by the Women’s March; Barack Obama’s inauguration was followed, a few weeks later, by anti-spending protests, mostly in the states but with one rally near the White House. 

Neither protest is possible now. Neither are the sit-ins that Democrats relied on to pressure Republicans in 2017 and 2018. Neither are the anti-shutdown protests that began this summer and continued at state capitols into mid-January. Heightened security, and worry about the optics or effectiveness of protests in the wake of the Capitol attack, shrunk to nearly nothing yesterday.

That affected conservatives yesterday, but it’ll affect liberals, too. Look at the difference between the street celebrations Nov. 7 of the Biden win, and yesterday’s ceremonies. Liberals want to organize and get loud, but the president actively discourages the most public sort of activism. Republicans hardly needed to organize in the Trump years, with a president taking cues from their activists (and media outlets) and delivering on their priorities.

How does a botched census affect redistricting? Even after the Jan. 6 riot staggered Republicans and shook their confidence about 2022, the party is expecting to carve new seats out of Florida, Texas and other states where they’ll control the redistricting process. 

But when will that begin? The combination of coronavirus complications, the administration’s now-moot effort to help states exclude noncitizens from their maps and general incompetence have delayed the expected release of data. New Jersey, which holds state elections this year, will delay its redistricting process if the data isn’t available by Feb. 15, which seems likely.

David Wasserman, the House editor of the Cook Political Report, suggested that the time crunch could lead to more judicial intervention in this round of mapmaking. In the meantime, dozens of members of Congress don’t know if they’ll represent safer seats in 2022, more competitive seats or be drawn out of them altogether — something Democrats have already talked about doing in New Mexico, where Rep. Yvette Herrell won the state’s reddest seat and went on to contest the presidential election.

Can power shift again before the midterms? It wouldn’t take much. If one Democratic senator is replaced by a Republican — something that last occurred eight years ago after the death of New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg — Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will become majority leader again. If Republicans win five special House elections, they’ll dislodge the majority party in that chamber, which hasn’t happened since 1932.

This is an awkward subject, given that it assumes scandals and death that both parties would be perfectly happy living without. The first test will come when Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico resigns, setting up a speedy special election in her strongly, but not rock-solid, Democratic district. The three other special elections already scheduled for this year are taking place in one safe Republican seat and two safe Democratic seats — but if Democrats act on the demand to expel members who egged on the Jan. 6 riot, special elections in their districts would tell us volumes about the energy inside the GOP.

Will the Kraken ever be released? That one can be answered right away: No. The election is really over. But keep reading, anyway!

Reading list

What happened yesterday, if you missed it.

How will a national mandate hit in states that reject other mandates?

The final journey of the 45th president.

The view from QAnon.

The longest-ever political march to the White House.

In defense of a source of presidential scandal.

Turnout watch

Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland” was the best political book of last year, the conclusion of a four-part history of America’s conservative movement from Barry Goldwater’s loss to Ronald Reagan’s win. It came at the right time, with the story of Jimmy Carter’s presidency beginning like the story of Biden’s — Democrats winning the White House with a promise to restore decency and truth after a scandal-plagued Republican president.

Shortly before the inauguration, The Trailer talked to Perlstein about the Carter years, the rise of the conservative movement that Trump inherited and whether the blunders Democrats have made after taking power in past years are inevitable.

The Trailer: One of the themes of this book is that the so-called media establishment is very slow to see a trend coming.

Rick Perlstein: They’re kind of the comic foil in all my books.

TT: So, why were they so slow to see the rise of the New Right after Jimmy Carter’s victory?

RP: It was a very established pattern not to take seriously any political movement that’s straying from a media-defined mainstream. “Before the Storm,” the book about Barry Goldwater, ends with the media saying Republicans are dead unless they purge the conservatives. There’s a picture of a headline in the book: “White backlash does not develop,” next to an article about [Lyndon B. Johnson’s] victory speech. But the same day that LBJ won California by a million votes, there’s an open housing proposition that loses by a million votes, and one of the big promoters was Ronald Reagan. 

There is this permanent seam of reaction to progressive social change. That’s a constant in American policy, yet somehow that gets missed over and over again. Also, the New Right itself was particularly good at the politics of stealth. Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail pioneer, says that tactic is like a water moccasin, silent but deadly. But for liberals, there’s a lack of appreciation and understanding of how the rhythms of reaction work in politics, which is that when reform is closest to kind of becoming institutionalized is when, you know, the fear of that reform is most easily weaponized. Conservative institutional politics in America is prospecting for grievances. Those grievances are often local, or localized, or small and they get fanned into big deals. 

TT: How did Democrats squander the opportunities they had after Carter won?

RP: The same thing happened with Carter that happened, a little bit, with [Barack] Obama. You know the saying, that Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love? Biden is clearly an outlier in this regard, but ever since Kennedy, there’s this shiny young object, this candidate everyone falls in love with. They tend to be ciphers. And Jimmy Carter had a breathtaking kind of contempt for the normal routines of Washington, unlike anything I think we’ll see again. He literally read the entire report of the Army Corps of Engineers, which I’m sure no president ever did before, and he decides there are 50 dam projects that are not rational. Terrible politics. Biden’s a break from that pattern of ciphers, though.

TT: What liberals generally criticize about Obama and Carter is that they were goaded into austerity policies, and the way to avoid their mistakes is to spend money and do big things. Why did Democrats under Carter embrace austerity?

RP: I think it’s a very unique circumstance. You can’t overemphasize the kind of trauma felt by kind of public officials and policy intellectuals seeing America’s prosperity as a permanent feature of the landscape, then watch it just kind of melt away. People were willing to try anything. It wasn’t merely just this kind of ideological idea, like “we’re going to shift our loyalties from labor to business.” It was like: “The New Deal doesn’t work. The New Deal is wrong.”

A lot of the solutions they came up with turned out to be wrong, tragically. It was absolutely taken as a matter of faith by Carter that inflation was caused by budget deficits, so you had to rein in the budget, not government spending, in order to whip inflation. We’ve had this experiment for years with massive budget deficits and practically no inflation, so that was wrong. It was intellectually tragic in that it was a wrong theory about how the world works, and it was morally tragic in that it hurt people. I use this line about “killing Santa Claus” because the basic foundation of Democrats’ appeal to voters was: We’re going to use the levers of government to help people. Jimmy had no appreciation for that. So by 1980, who are you going to vote for? The guy who says I’m going to cut spending, or the guy who says I’ll spend more on defense and give you a tax cut?

TT: We’re talking a few days after the January 6 riot in the Capitol. There are people in this book, like Richard Viguerie who you mentioned, who are still active in conservative politics, and haven’t really changed their messaging, but the rhetoric about overthrowing liberals became more real. Was what we saw on January 6 in the DNA of conservative politics in the Carter years?

There was a lineage on the right there. You had the Minutemen in the early ’60s, and none of this is particularly strange in the context of 20th-century Southern politics. The idea that the federal government is evil, the idea the federal government is destroying, ordinary peoples’ way of life; there’s all kinds of rhetoric, through the era about how the federal government has to be resisted by force of arms. I mean, that’s literally what happens in 1962 at the University of Mississippi, a mob drives off the federal government. There’s the idea that the civil rights movement is being directed by the Communist Party, and you see the idea now that Black Lives Matter is a Marxist plot. 

In the 1970s, you had these very principled liberal senators from the most unlikely places, like Idaho, Iowa and South Dakota. One guy, Dick Clark, was focused on decolonization in southern Africa. He’s one of the first victims of this kind of New Right direct-mail onslaughts, and one of the people who gets that mail sends back a donation with a check and a note, “Hang Dick Clark on a telephone poll.” There’s a senator from New Hampshire who supports the Panama Canal treaty, and he’s getting accused of being part of a “deep state.” People read these facts that I flush out of the record, their eyes bug out, and I think that demonstrates how little we know about these kind of ugly corners of America.

TT: After looking at this era, and living through the Clinton and Obama years, do you think there’s any way for Democrats to govern without generating a backlash? Any policy they can tack in, or concession they can make?

RP: There is a certain kind of Democrat who believes that if they if they craft a policy response to such an exquisite tolerance that no one could object to it, somehow there won't be a backlash. The Affordable Care Act is just a perfect example of this: Nothing to grab on to, to attack? Make something up, like “death panels.” It always goes back to the initial fascination that kind of got me to this: How the hell do we manage to have a country where these tribes are just so incommensurate, so far apart in how they see the world?

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Dept. of Republican infighting

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the only member of House Republican leadership who voted to impeach former president Donald Trump, has faced blowback from her party ever since. The Wyoming Republican Party condemned her vote, more than 120 of her colleagues support a challenge to her leadership role, and she’s starting to attract challengers ahead of a 2022 primary. 

“Wyoming taxpayers need a voice in Congress who will stand up to Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats, and not give them cover,” said state Sen. Anthony Bouchard in a statement, announcing his campaign against Cheney.

Cheney, first elected in 2016, had to muscle past primary challengers back then. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) even endorsed a challenger, sparking a years-long feud between the two dynastic Republicans.

But that argument was largely about foreign policy, while Bouchards is about supporting Trump. On his Facebook page, the senator praised Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and urged Cheney to be “run out of town” and sent to Virginia, where she spent much of her life as her father served in Congress and the two Bush administrations.

“There are only two conclusions with her,” Bouchard wrote. “[Either] she is perfectly fine with the new norm [or] ignorance led her thinking that the socialists would stop advancing after Trump conceded. Either way, it leaves us with the same results.”

Nine other Republicans voted with Cheney to impeach Trump but have not yet drawn challengers. The earliest regularly scheduled primaries, in Illinois and Texas, are still 14 months away.


… 58 days until special House elections in Louisiana
… 138 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 152 days until New Yorks primary