This week on Deconstructed, Ryan Grim is joined by Dmitri Mehlhorn, a tech executive who has emerged as one of the most powerful financiers in the Democratic Party and a strategist who often takes direct aim, with millions of dollars, at the party’s left flank. He was in the news this week for helping finance E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit against Donald Trump. Mehlhorn and Grim discuss their competing views on political strategy, the best way to challenge Republicans, and the way forward for the party.
[Deconstructed theme music.]
Ryan Grim: I’m Ryan Grim. Welcome back to Deconstructed.
First, a big thank you to everybody who gave last week during our little pledge drive; very much appreciated. Today we’re going to be talking about the future of the Democratic Party and competing ideas about how it ought to pitch itself to the country, what it should stand for, and how it can best stand up to Trump and the MAGA movement around him.
Now, for that conversation, we’re going to be joined by Dmitri Mehlhorn, who is a tech executive and an advisor to LinkedIn billionaire Reid Hoffman, but is also his own man in democratic politics, and is one of those people in Washington that is influential enough that, when he gets talked about, it’s just by one name: Dmitri.
Dmitri Mehlhorn: [Laughs.]
RG: Dmitri thinks this, or Dmitri is funding that, and, very often what Dmitri is funding, is aimed at undermining the party’s left flank, in order to — in his belief — make the party a more viable challenger to Republicans. And so, I wanted to have Dmitri himself on, so we could hear straight from him what he thinks the party’s approach should be in 2024.
Dmitri, welcome to Deconstructed.
DM: Ryan, it’s a pleasure. And just to make sure that nobody misses this: My sainted mother, who is in her eighties, loves Ryan Grim. And if given the opportunity to choose who’s right, she will always choose Ryan Grim over her own son.
RG: Well, anybody with a mother that is that wonderful can’t be all bad, so I’m very glad to have you on. And I’ll be sure to send this out in my newsletter to her, so she’ll be getting a copy of it, no doubt.
RG: And so, before we get into it, can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how you wound up at the center of democratic politics?
DM: [Laughs.] I’m not sure I’m at the center of it. My background: my parents met at U.C. Berkeley. My mom was a great-granddaughter of Jewish immigrants who had come to New York to flee the pogroms of late-1800s Russia and Ukraine. And she shows up in Los Angeles at UCLA., gets her graduate degree at UC Berkeley, and meets my father, who is a non-Jewish German war refugee who was bombed out of his home before he turned two, who eventually made his way out to California. And even though his aunts and uncles were members of the Nazi party, and thus had some culpability in slaughtering the other half of my family, when they met in Berkeley, they fell in love, and they had a child: me.
And because of that history and because of the way it was shared with me, I’ve been very alert my whole life to the potential threat of somebody like Trump. I believe his example is a very common phenomenon in human history. And so, when he came along in 2015, I became quite alarmed. At the time, I was an early-stage angel investor, investing in a variety of small technology and data startups. And I began working, to the extent that I could, to get others to share my fear about Mr. Trump. And when he actually won the election, I realized that I could not do anything else other than try to get him to not win another election. And when I say could not do anything else, I meant, literally, I’ve tried to concentrate on something else, I couldn’t concentrate, because I had so much fear about what a second Trump term would do.
So, I became active in that, and through social networks was reengaged with my former college classmate, who I’d known lightly over the years — Reid Hoffman — who shared my views of Mr. Trump, but had a great deal — a great deal — more money to fight. And so, he and I partnered up, and we have been active in anti-fascist politics ever since.
RG: I characterized your politics very briefly at the top of the show, but how would you, in your own words, describe the strategy that you are trying to get the Democratic Party to emulate?
DM: Ah, so, as a strategic — The only thing that I am focused on is making sure that Mr. Trump does not get another term of office. I believe that would be a catastrophic event. And if there’s anything else that gets in the way of that, I’m opposed to that other thing. So that’s the broad background.
In terms of how I believe that Mr. Trump should be defeated, I believe that the extremism that he represents needs to be the center of the conversation. And the Democratic Party needs to organize and focus on the ways in which his vision differ[s] from what 90 percent of Americans want.
RG: And to you, is this a momentary strategy to deal with an immediate threat? Or would you see this as kind of the basis for a political party to organize itself around?
DM: The former. There are a lot of people who believe — and you see it a lot — that Trump is a symptom, and that if we over focus on him, we will ignore the underlying disease. We are strongly in disagreement with that perspective. He is the disease.
RG: And so, how do you think about the role of center-left parties in other developed countries? If you look at Europe and elsewhere, you’ve seen the kind of Clintonian type of center-left coalition basically collapse. You know, the bottom has fallen out of the center-left, and a lot of the center-right in a lot of places around the world. What makes you confident that the center-left here in the United States would be strong enough to stand up to a fascist movement?
DM: So, on its own, it’s not; the organizing principle should not be center-left, although that happens to be a fairly good characterization of my personal politics. But, by the way, it’s probably worthwhile — since politics is all personal — it’s probably worthwhile taking a step back. It is not merely that I am anti-fascist. I am currently professionally anti-fascist, but that is not the only thing I care about politically. I also am an extreme libertarian.
So, for example, on the issue of abortion, I believe that the government’s ability to tell you what to do, ends at your body. And so, if some government official has some point of view about what some cells are doing inside your body, there’s nothing they can do about it until those cells leave your body, at which point, maybe they have some rights. So, for example, substantively on that issue, I’m pretty strongly libertarian.
The thing that got me most upset about Mr. Trump was his assault on truth, but it was also his racism, and his assault on immigrants. Personally, in my point of view, I would probably be as quote-unquote “left” as many of your listeners on issues such as immigration, and criminal justice reform, and abortion rights. My view is also that none of that really matters if there’s a chance that someone like Trump can get a second term in office. Because, the difference is between, say, my more-strong view on that versus someone who’s maybe more moderate on that pales in comparison to the position that Mr. Trump would take.
So, when we’re talking about the center-left, the center-left is one of many, many groups that need to be united to prevent fascists from taking power.
RG: OK. So then, are you concerned that the kind of war the center-left has been waging — somewhat successfully, I would say, against the left flank of the party — is then going to undermine the ability of the coalition to come together at election time? Or are you concerned about what that does to turnout or enthusiasm? And if not, why not?
DM: Great questions. So, there’s so much about — When you use the analogy of a war, so much ends up getting — and I’m not saying it’s the wrong analogy — but there’s so much that ends up getting lumped into that. So, for example, you start asking, “Well, who started the war? Who’s fighting? On what grounds are they fighting?” And so, the thing that I believe is that everybody, from AOC to Liz Cheney, needs to be a part of the coalition to prevent Mr. Trump from taking office again. And so, if AOC is spending all of her time energy attacking Mr. Trump, then she’s on my team.
The reason we invested in groups like the Mainstream Democrats, who elevated Shontel Brown over Nina Turner, is we believe that Nina Turner was actually training her fire on somebody other than Mr. Trump; specifically, Mr. Biden, who was actually the center of our team. So, our decision to start investing in groups like Mainstream Democrats is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it came up after the exposure of working with these groups.
So, beginning in 2017 and 2018, when we were experimenting with different approaches to defeating the Trumpist movement, we actually put considerable investments behind fairly aggressive leftist groups. We supported open Socialists, for example, in the 2017 Virginia House of Delegates races, and some of them won. And in the 2018 midterm, we supported Richard Ojeda and Krystal Ball and the People’s House Project. We supported the Progressive Campaign Change Committee. We were major early backers of Indivisible. We put a lot of money into these groups that anchored what is now seen as the left because we didn’t know, and frankly didn’t care, so long as they were on the same side.
What we observed through the evidence of watching different races and monitoring them is that the more extreme leftist position did worse in the elections. You know, going hard-left cost us about one or two percentage points, which is decisive in a lot of these races, number one. And number two, people on the left were extremely enthusiastic about taking the fight in terms of salience and issues, in a way that we found to be helpful to Mr. Trump and hurtful to Trump’s enemies. So, that’s why we have moved the way that we have.
RG: What do you mean by “taking the fight?” Like, what were they doing? You mean, taking the fight to the Democratic Party establishment?
DM: So, first of all, a huge movement occurred in 2020 around George Floyd, right? Oh, actually, I’ll give you three examples and you can pick them apart. Defund the police, as a movement out of the George Floyd protests was one example. The term Latinx was a second example. And Medicare For All was a third example.
In our view, the evidence was very clear that these three things were politically toxic in a general election, and, the less said, the better. And there were significant parts of the Democratic Party that were urging those issues to be central, important, salient issues in the election, and the entirety of the Republican Party was enthusiastic about that as well. So, you have the left wing of the Democratic Party and the entirety of the Republican Party elevating these issues, because these are issues that will help Republicans defeat Democrats.
And so, we realized that, since no one in the Democratic coalition was willing to stand up to our own side and say, “Guys, this is not working,” we had to play that role.
RG: I think you would probably find broad agreement on the Latinx point, from kind of left to center at this point.
RG: And I think — other than a handful of folks who brought the phrase “defund the police” into electoral politics — you’d probably find agreement across the democratic political spectrum on that, too. What would you say to the criticism that it was actually the party’s center that said “defund the police” a hundred times more than the party’s left flank? And I think that was particularly true in the 2022 New York elections, where you’d constantly have people like Sean Patrick Maloney or others attacking fellow Democrats for using the phrase “defund the police” back in 2020, long after that phrase itself had lost salience among activists.
DM: Yeah. So, I’m glad you’re asking the question that way. It’s the right way to ask the question, and it creates a complicated answer. The basic answer is that elections are decided by swing voters and what they hear. And what swing voters hear: paid media, what politicians pay to say, and what activists say, and what politicians themselves say has some impact on that, but it’s very light. Maybe one unit out of 20, somewhere between one unit out of 20 and one unit out of a hundred. So, something like 1 to 5 percent of what a swing voter hears comes actually from the activists.
The rest of it comes from this viral ecosystem, this earned media ecosystem, this free media ecosystem. Like, how does our national consciousness move? And it’s shaped by a lot of actors, good and bad, and you cannot fully predict it. However, you can draw patterns about things that are likely to be issues. And it is a fair assumption that the republican salient issues in ‘20 and ‘22 and ‘24, the top five issues that they will be trying to make top of mind for swing voters, one of them will be crime. One of the top five, maybe even one of the top three.
And on crime, what are they going to say? And what they’re going to say is that there is a currently sitting member of the Democratic Party in the United States Congress, who openly and expressly advocates for the end of funding to police forces. And there are quite a number of other Democrats who are in power now — in administration positions and in Congress — who don’t agree with that extreme position of, there should be no funding of the police, but when asked if they believe in defund the police, will give a complicated answer other than, “No, we should fund the police.”
Now, my friend, Anat Shenker-Osorio, who’s another person that we have funded in the past, will tell you that if we say the words “fund the police,” that’s bad, because it’s increasing the salience of an issue. And if you run a poll, real-time, and you ask people, “Hey, nothing else is going on in the world, it’s more than a year away from the next election. I’d like you to take a poll,” and you drop in the phrase “fund the police” out of nowhere that will probably raise the salience of crime in that survey. And you’ll read the poll and you’ll say, “Ah, saying the words ‘fund the police’ or attacking the defund the police movement from the center-left — attacking the left — those things actually reduce the poll results that you get in this survey, a year and a half away from election day.”
What we believe is that the three months leading up to Election Day, and Election Day, is a particularly salient moment where people think about things differently. And so, what you really need to know is, in the three months before an election, and especially on election day, would they ordinarily be thinking about crime, and will they be alert to the possibility that members of the Democratic Party wish to remove funding from the police? If you believe those things are inevitable, then once a significant critical mass of the Democratic Party starts saying “defund the police,” you actually have to inoculate yourself, and you have to make sure that you’re on record saying, “fund the police.”
And yes, there will be some short-term irritation around that — just like a vaccine will give you some symptoms — but, once you have those symptoms, when people are cued to understand that you wish to fund the police in normal context — and especially if they remember it, because it’s an unusual story, because it’s a man bites dog, a Democrat going away from their own party — once you do that inoculation, you are less vulnerable than you would be if you just let that thing spread like wildfire.
And you may be right that, today, most Democratic Party activists agree that defund the police is not worth promoting. Both during 2020, and even throughout 2021, into December of 2021, when you made the argument that Democrats should not do that, you would still get a lot of pushback, with a lot of good arguments, but it was not a consensus then.
Does that sort of answer it, Ryan?
RG: Yeah. You think you hadn’t beaten it back enough yet, so it was still worth fighting, is what you’re trying to say.
DM: What I would say is, we still haven’t. Yeah, what I would say is that, in an ideal world, Joe Biden would’ve said the words “fund the police” more slowly, more loudly, more often. And had he done so, we would’ve done even better in ‘22 and ‘20. But the democratic left was — Immediately after he said those words in his State of the Union, for example, Anat Shenkar-Osorio — who’s widely respected, for good reason, as a messaging expert — sharply criticized him for having done so. And again, her basic argument was, if you pull people outside of an election context, that kind of language doesn’t help the way they talk about Democrats in the polls. And that’s just, in our view, a deeply flawed way of understanding how politics works.
RG: Well, it feels a little unfalsifiable, in the sense that the place where the strategy was tried the hardest was New York, where you had New York, Cuomo, ex-Cuomo Democrats really going after the left and DSA, and constantly saying that we’re not going to be as bad as these other bad Democrats are on crime. You know, we’re not going to defund the police, we’re going to fund the police.
And New York was the most underperforming state, it feels like, anywhere. And so, it feels unfalsifiable, in the sense that your argument seems to be, if we’d have just done it harder, you know, like, more “defund cowbell” would have gotten us there. And who knows? Like, I can’t say yes or no to that, but I can say that it was tried there, didn’t seem to work in New York.
DM: Yeah. You’re making a couple of points that are really important. The first point, which is really, really frustrating for Democrats, and it’s because Democrats, broadly speaking, are the party of facts and science, and so we want to measure everything. And so, one of the reasons why Democrats lose elections is because we try to only operate in areas that can be falsified. We only look for our keys where the light is. And each election is a sui generis thing, and there’s some things you can just know — like this many mail pieces is better than that many mail pieces — but big lane-changing stuff, each election is its own cycle, and you don’t know.
And in particular, defund the police as a national call, and how that worked nationally, it’s hard to know how that played down in New York, etc. What I would say is that candidates that took an aggressive fund the police position in 2020 tended to win their races, like Vicente Gonzalez, Abby Spanberger, etc. Pretty much every one of those frontline members of Congress said, “I was getting hit at every town hall with defund the police, I was getting slammed with defund the police all over the place. I was only able to eke out a victory by aggressively articulating a fund the police position.” And that’s what they say. And it could be wrong. It doesn’t show up in, you know, Anat’s polls, but that’s what they say.
It’s also like, if you’re looking at New York as an example — you know, that’s a multi-party primary with ranked choice voting — the fund the police answer won. I mean, Eric Adams is mayor.
RG: Well, that may be the case that he won there. There were some bizarre scandals that knocked out his opponent.
DM: A hundred percent. Yeah, New York state in general…
RG: And Brandon Johnson just won in Chicago. And Helen Gym might win in Philadelphia.
DM: Yeah. But Chicago is not a ranked choice voting state, is it?
RG: No, it is a runoff. Yeah.
DM: And it was a Democratic primary, right? Or no?
RG: Well, It’s top two.
DM: Oh, it’s just top two.
DM: OK. So that’s fair enough. So that is an example where the fund the police versus the defund the police was tested. And yeah, the fund the police, in the Paul Vallas case, the fund the police position lost to Brandon Johnson. So you’re right about that.
RG: Let’s go back to the abortion politics that you mentioned.
RG: You and I were emailing about this, and I was surprised to hear your position on how to run on Dobbs and Roe. And so, rather than me articulating it for you, how do you think Democrats ought to approach politics of abortion in 2024?
DM: The same way that I think they should approach every salient issue, which is to point out that the Republican Party is absolutely controlled by a fringe that represents a position that is anathema to 90 percent of the country. The Republican Party cannot distance themselves from that position, they’re deeply interlinked with that position. And therefore, those people should not be given the power to put that position into law.
Specifically in the case of reproductive health, politically, I would say, in general, you can just map out the country who agrees with what. There’s about a third that’s broadly pro-life, there’s about a third that’s broadly pro-choice, there’s about a third that’s kind of in the uncomfortable European middle, of like, some but not others, and that’s kind of where we are as a country.
And while Roe was law, the Republicans could basically run to gather the pro-life votes, and they could also appeal to that uncomfortable center. And they could even appeal to the pro-choice folks, because the pro-choice folks would know that Roe was a backstop. And so, if the pro-choice folks happened to agree with Republicans on some other issue, like economics, they could swallow the abortion thing because it wasn’t real. That’s what happened until Dobbs.
Once Dobbs happens, you have the ability to make the debate. Like, what is the part of the debate that the Republican Party cannot disavow? And in the Wisconsin race, what the Wisconsin Democrats did, and what Governor Evers did, and Ben Wikler did, is they focused, they locked in on — I think his name was Michels? Was that the Republican nominee?
RG: Mm-hmm. Michels. Yeah.
DM: Yeah. They locked into the Republican nominee, they got a mic in his face right after he won the nomination, and they made sure that they understood his point of view about the Wisconsin snapback law, which did not have exceptions for that sort of thing. And so, once Michels was immediately on record suggesting that minors should be forced to carry their rapist pregnancy to term, all of the ads were about that.
Did you see the ad that won those awards in Wisconsin?
RG: This is the Ben Wikler ad?
DM: Well, I don’t know if it’s “the Ben Wikler ad,” because he obviously touches all of this Wisconsin stuff, but he was very active in making sure this ad happened, as did others, and we were active in making sure it got financial support. But the idea was, it was just a series of young girls, age 12, having fun, and then the voiceover changes and the atmospherics change when the discussion is, some of them will be raped, some of them will be impregnant, and Michels wants to force them to actually bear their rapists’ children.
Advertisement voice over: A 12-year old girl can’t legally drive a car. At 12, she can’t even vote. But if this little girl were tragically raped or a victim of incest and became pregnant, radical Tim Michels would force her to deliver the baby.
He said, it’s, “Not unreasonable for the state government to mandate rape victims to give birth.” Would it be unreasonable if he were forcing this on you? Let him know on election day.
DM: That is the winning play. Because the thing about the Republicans now, we have some trouble standing up to our left. You know, I fund Shontel Brown, and a bunch of the left is like, “Oh, how horrible.” But we are able to have debates between the center and the left. On the right, that’s not available. There is no one on the right that can disavow the pro-life extremists, which is why you get someone like Tudor Dixon in Michigan.
I met. Governor Whitmer for the first time in 2019, and we all thought she had a good chance of losing. She cruised, and part of it was that she was running against someone who said that forcing a 14-year-old to bear her rapist child was a gift from God, and she couldn’t disavow that. Abortion is a super salient issue. On average, one of these swing voters who might change their mind is going to be thinking about abortion as one of their top issues, and one of the two candidates is openly saying that they’re going to force this young girl to bear her rapist child.
That’s ballgame, and that’s what we should be replicating. As long as the Republicans are harboring that kind of insanity, we should make sure they pay for it.
RG: And to me, if you have an opponent who is saying something that is that insane, it only makes perfect sense to highlight the fact that they are saying that completely insane and extreme thing. I guess the question then is, what does that mean for what the Democrats are going to say that they’re going to do when they get into office?
Because what’s really struck me about the post-Dobbs moment is that you saw, almost for the first time, people surging into politics who had been disaffected in the past.That’s kind of like the Bernie fever dream of politics that he, you know, he ran his campaigns on the idea that, by exciting disaffected voters with an agenda that is populist and popular, and is going to take on the elites, that you’re going to bring people into politics that weren’t involved in politics before.
Now, that didn’t really pan out for him, so that kind of theory collapsed. He actually did better in caucuses and other states where turnout was lower. AOC, you know, upset Joe Crowley in a race where, like, 25,000 people, or something, came out and voted, so it ended up being something of the opposite. But then, when you had the case of Dobbs, and people felt that participating in politics could materially improve their lives, could defend a right that was taken away — Which, in some ways, is what Sanders was trying to get them to do. It’s to say, look, if you participate in politics, you will be able to materially improve your lives.
I think he was not able to convince anybody. He was not able to convince enough people that their participation would actually improve their lives. But people seem to get it on their own after Dobbs. You know, with Democrats kind of flat on their back, you had the White House, even with six weeks heads up that the Supreme Court was going to overturn Roe, was still caught flatfooted when they finally did it. Yet voters in Kansas kind of surged to the polls. You saw voter registration among young people, among women, even among men, increasing at substantial rates. You saw huge turnout in Kansas, and a blowout victory for abortion rights advocates, in a race that people thought they might win, or might lose, thought it was going to be very close. Instead, it’s a landslide.
And then, in every other state where there was a chance that people’s participation in politics would actually do something good when it came to abortion rights, you saw turnout surge, and you saw that position sweep, even if it was in Montana. You know, forget Kentucky, as you mentioned, Michigan.
In states where people didn’t feel like abortion rights were under threat — say, like, New York — you didn’t see the same surge in voter registration and voter turnout. So, should Democrats still say, we are going to codify Roe v. Wade, but they just should be quiet about it and focus on the extremism of Republicans? Because, if that’s your position, maybe I’m comfortable with that. But, do you think that Democrats running on codifying Roe is a bad idea?
DM: So, I think running on codifying Roe is a bad idea, and I think that the words you just said, when taken together, explain why.
Basically, you said Bernie believed that you could turn a bunch of people out by getting them to believe that being involved in politics could make their life better, and that didn’t really pan out for him. And you talked about other examples, and there are many, many others. And by the way, I was open to that idea, as I said. It turns out it’s not true. You cannot get people to vote by getting them to believe that voting and participating will materially improve their lives. It does not work, ever. Ever.
There are occasions when the right kind of candidate can catalyze a social movement that then leads to turnout — like a Barack Obama case or maybe a Bill Clinton case — but, fundamentally, these guys are centrists. What you can get people to get really excited about is: if you participate in politics, you might be able to prevent something really bad from happening to you.
So, imagine you’re the average voter, and you’re saying, OK, there are three things you can choose to believe about politics, and adjust your behavior accordingly. One, politics can do nothing for you. Two, politics can make your life better. Three, politics can make your life worse. People will believe the third. They normally default to the first, but they will believe the third. Within a rounding error, for electorally viable purposes, nobody believed the second, other than Bernie and his staffers and, you know, some other folks. It doesn’t work that way. I wish it did. It doesn’t.
The conversation about, for example, immediately after Dobbs, if I had been the Senate majority leader, I would have put a series of votes on the floor forcing the Republicans to confront their own extremes. The very first one would’ve been, “no minor should be forced by the state to carry her rapist pregnancy to term.” The second would be, “no adult should be penalized for helping a minor exercise their reproductive rights.” The third could be, “no woman of any age should be forced to carry her rapist’s. And just keep on going.”
And this puts the Republicans in a terrible position, because you would not— Even the one about banning, just saying, nationally, “no one in this country who’s been raped, who’s a minor, should be forced to carry her rapist pregnancy to term,” even that one would not get a hundred votes. There would be a good solid 10, 15 votes on the far, far right of the caucus who would vote for that. Maybe more. And then they would have to explain that, and that would be the news.
And the reason this is important, Ryan, is because politics does affect salience, and does affect news coverage. The specific issue of minors being impregnated, that happens in this country, in every state, all the time. Right now, every single state in this country has a woman, a girl, under 17, a minor, who is carrying a pregnancy that was put there by a rapist. Every state in this country. And the news doesn’t cover it, normally, because it’s background noise. It happens all the time, has happened for centuries, forever. The news will start covering it only if it becomes a salient issue, which it became after Dobbs. And once that becomes an issue, you have all of these Republican figures in media and politics explaining, “Oh, that didn’t really happen, that couldn’t happen.” And then, actually, yeah, it does happen. So, do you defend it or not?
And when the Democrats were considering whether to do this kind of work on the Senate floor to expose the extremism in the Republican Party, they chose not to, because Democrats were concerned that Republicans would simply use this to de-extremize themselves. They would stand up and, you know, Adam Laxalt might say, “Oh, I would vote for that Schumer bill,” and therefore, Cortez Masto would not be able to use Dobbs against him. That was the theory.
And what I think that misunderstands is, it just doesn’t understand the way that politics has turned in the last few years. It is impossible, in my view, for Adam Laxalt, or any Republican, to disavow their extremists, because the extremists have become the critical part of their coalition. They control the state and local party, they cannot be disavowed. And so, if you go extreme, it’s not that, suddenly, they’re going to use your symbolic vote as a way to position themselves as moderates. They’re going to be screwed, unless we decline to take the option, which we did.
So, instead, the bill that we put up for discussion was a bill that literally united every single Republican Senator in opposition — which was to codify Roe, with some other stuff — and they also got Joe Manchin. So, rather than a bill that would’ve been a 90 to 10 debacle that would have forced them to explain their extremists, it’s like, oh yeah, both sides, the Democrats have a bunch of extreme positions on abortion as well. It’s the worst possible choice.
So, to win elections, you don’t codify Roe, you codify not-extreme. You force the vote the way that the Kansas ballot initiative was, force the vote on the extreme Republican position, and Democrats will win — like in Kansas — by substantial margins, and you’ll have things like the Democratic Governor of Kansas winning reelection, because she made it about the Republican extremists.
RG: But you had Warnock and Fetterman, both proud champions of abortion rights, of saying that they would codify Roe — or even beyond codify Roe, actually — if they got into the Senate. So, why do you think that that didn’t hurt them? Or maybe my question is: Are you against them actually codifying Roe, if they take power and can eliminate the filibuster? Like, do you think that would be a political mistake, and that they’re better off being able to kind of beat up Republicans with the issue?
DM: Well, I want to really separate out two issues. One is, what should Democrats or anyone do in governance to make the country better and serve their constituents? Versus what is the way to win an election? Those are different things in my view.
If Democrats have a governing majority that allows them to do whatever they want on abortion, I still think you can get to codifying Roe, just get there in a series of steps. I guess I would put it this way, Ryan: when you’re thinking about the aggregate epistemology of the country, and where we are going as a country— There’s a new book out called “Gradual” that’s very good. There’s a book that came out not that long ago by David Graeber, who’s now passed, “The Dawn of Everything.” And what you see is that human societies move very much in opposition to each other, people separate themselves from each other. And in a time of great uncertainty like this where the boundaries are all over the map, the way that you legislate effectively is you start by saying, “OK, can we at least all agree on ‘X’ as a starting point?” You start that way.
And in the case of abortion, like, “OK, can we at least agree that minors should not be forced to carry their rapist pregnancy to term? Good? We’re all good with that. OK. How about this?” And you just keep going. And where you end up might look a little bit like Roe, might be better than Roe. Might be a little worse, might be better in some ways, worse in others, but that’s what you’re trying to go to.
RG: But, because Warnock and Fetterman won on as strong champions of abortion rights, the Senate now is controlled by a majority that is pro-codifying Roe. I guess I’m trying to figure out —
DM: Step one is: Make it clear that, under federal law, any minor who has been impregnated — and therefore, truistically [sic], definitionally, is a rape survivor — any minor who is pregnant as a result of that rape should be given all the healthcare she needs to end that pregnancy if she needs and wants to, needs or wants to. And no adult should be prevented from helping her, or punished in any way for helping her do that.
You could start there, that doesn’t preclude you from doing anything else. But why wouldn’t you start there? Why wouldn’t you just get the 90 votes, bank that, and then, how about, what’s the next thing? This kind of steady approach of marginalizing the extremes will likely get you to the same place, legislatively. But in terms of the governing majority, remember, under the current rules, you need 60 votes. This is not going to go in through reconciliation.
And you’re not going to get 60 votes to just codify Roe. You know, it’s just too complicated of a decision, it was too cumbersome and too mixed in its popularity. You’re not going to get there. So, why not get what you can, protect the people you can, protect all those girls, every single state, rather than going for it all, and risking it all?
And by the way, again, going for the first step of marginalizing and excluding the extremes, in my view, does not preclude then doing more. In fact, it makes it more likely.
RG: So, to you, does the victory by Fetterman, and the victory by Warnock, and Ossoff, previously, who ran on pretty progressive platforms — Now, they didn’t use the phrases “Medicare For All,” they didn’t use the phrase, “Green New Deal.” Fetterman had previously supported Medicare For All, never denounced Medicare For All, but, if you looked at his new campaign site for 2022, Medicare for All wasn’t on there. But the language was very similar.
But, up and down, these were not your 2012 or 2006 democratic Senate candidates — Blue Dogs, new Democrats — who were picking some Republican issues and picking some democratic issues, and portraying themselves as centrists. They were pretty unapologetic progressive candidates, and they won. Does that change how you think about what’s possible in a winning coalition? Because there could be some type of compromise there, between the left and the center-left, that if Warnock and Fetterman are going to be the party-type candidates in purple States, the left wouldn’t have a whole lot to complain about.
DM: All right, well, there’s a bunch bundled in there that’s worth talking about, and I’ll try to limit myself to the things that might be of greatest interest to you and your audience. First of all, issues themselves play a very, very small role in determining elections. If you are focused on winning an election, and you just want to win an election, for the purposes of math, you basically ignore the people who are going to vote anyway, on the Republican side and the Democratic side, and you focus yourself on the people who might vote either way.
These are the legendary swing voters. A more accurate way of describing them that’s more precise is that they’re partisan bystanders. So, negative partisanship is not so dominant in their thinking that it prevents them from switching between one major partner and the other. That’s about 10 percent of the electorate. And then there’s people who are marginal in their decision whether to vote or not. Whether it’s the sort of rural non-college whites who were brought out by Karl Rove’s 2004 anti-gay initiatives or college students who were brought out by enthusiasm for Barack Obama or whatever.
You know, those are the only issues. Those are the only groups that you care about winning elections. And frankly, if you care about Trump, you only care about those groups in swing states. Those groups don’t care about political issues or policy issues. The random marginal voter who’s making a decision about whether to vote for Mehmet Oz or John Fetterman — Like, if we were to take everybody whose votes were conditional, like people who voted who were thinking about maybe not doing, people who didn’t vote — who thought about it, but decided not to — and people who decided their votes at the last minute, I would venture to guess that zero of them made the decision because of what Fetterman said on his website about abortion.
It was much more identitarian, much more, “Do I basically trust this guy? Do I trust him enough to overcome my prior that all Democrats are evil? Do I trust…” you know, etc., etc. In the Fetterman case, we seriously considered putting a lot of support behind Conor Lamb because we thought he’d be a stronger candidate against Mehmet Oz.
RG: He was begging for it, publicly.
DM: Oh yeah.
RG: Begging for a super PAC intervention. Yeah.
DM: Oh yeah. And basically, we decided that Fetterman’s attributes outweighed his downsides, in our view. So, his attributes in this identitarian fight were that: He was tall, he had tattoos, he wore baggy shorts. He was a very physical candidate. If he hadn’t had that stroke, I think he would have crushed Oz, because his physicality really impressed people.
And if you looked at focus groups of swing voters in Pennsylvania and asked them about — including Republicans — and asked them about Fetterman versus Oz, Oz was from New Jersey, he was effete, he was college-educated, he was rich, he was Turkish. Fetterman was active, had tattoos, was relatable, was strong. That’s what they cared about. Now, if Fetterman had instead taken the abortion position that I’d recommended, rather than the more aggressive one that he’d taken, would that have cost him any votes? In my view, probably not. Because there was no way that that was going to be the central issue for those voters.
In a race where you’ve got Oz, and Shapiro, and all these other folks going on, in Pennsylvania, the gift to Democrats in Pennsylvania was that the Republicans nominated Doug Mastriano. And in Michigan, it was that they nominated Tudor Dixon. And those people — by virtue of their extremism on many issues, including abortion — made the debate about abortion where it needed to be.
RG: The risk, to me, about this kind of politics — I’m curious for your take on this — is that it then winds up electing a Democratic Party that doesn’t do anything. Because, I mean, that’s ultimately what I care about. Maybe I’m — well, I think polls show I clearly am in the minority — but what are we in this for, if we’re not in it to make the country a better place?
And so, if the issues don’t matter one way or the other, why not at least have a robust agenda that you plan to accomplish? And then go ahead and beat up your opponent for being an extremist nut job who wants forced birth for 12-year-olds, but then, when in power, actually do things that people like.
DM: So, a couple of things. There’s two broad things about this. Well, actually, let me start with the more important point for the purposes of this conversation, which is winning elections. If the debate is fundamentally about, Mastriano is crazy and Oz is a carpetbagger, then, yeah, it doesn’t really matter what your issues are. But If you add them up, it can be a lot, right?
So, maybe you get a little bit more progressive? It’s not enough to break through. But the further and further you go down the progressive route, the greater the risk is that you open yourself up to an attack that actually loses you the election.
So, for example, one of the groups that we pay close attention to is the group of folks on the democratic side who monitor the efficacy of television advertisements, right? And they monitor it in the way that I was dismissing earlier, which is that you insert the television ad into an otherwise banal set of online engagement, and then you test whether the ad effectively changed people’s views. So, you do an in-survey placement, you ask people at the beginning of the survey, you ask people at the end of the survey. In the best designed versions of this, you then follow those same people and ask them again a week later. And you do all that, and you try to say, like, OK, did this content move people? It’s not perfect, because the salience is so different from the election, but it’s one of the least bad things we have, so we do that.
Based on that, the Republicans did something in 2022 that previously Democrats did. So, Democrats in 2016 ran a bunch of ads that made Democrats feel good, made democratic donors feel good. These were ads about how Trump was a dangerous jerk. And in retrospect, it appears pretty likely that those ads elected Trump, because the electorate wanted a dangerous jerk. And so, if we had taken the hundreds of millions of dollars we’d spent on those ads, and spent them instead on a big national party on something entirely different, Hillary Clinton would be president. Like, those ads elected Trump. And we did it because we were appealing to our own donors and activists, rather than really paying good attention to what the voters potentially wanted.
The Republicans appeared to have done the same thing in 2022. They ran on crime and the border — and a little bit on Chris Rufo identitarian stuff — but they ran on crime and the border, and wokeness and whatever. Our analysis — and by “our,” I don’t mean just, you know, Team Dmitri, I mean the entire Democratic Party that has an operation assessing this stuff — showed that we were vulnerable on abortion. If the Republicans had spent more money explaining that they were not abortion extremists, then the post-Dobbs energy could have cost us a few of those seats. If Kari Lake had run those ads, she would be the governor, and we would be in a world of hurt because of it. But they didn’t, because they believed crime was better, and it wasn’t. But the more you go into places that it looks really likely that the place you are could actually lose you some votes, the bigger the risk is that you take.
Now, going to the second point that you made that I think is quite important is: why get involved in politics? You want to do things. I would just say to you — and this is the point of the David Graeber book, about “The Dawn of Everything” — being not another thing can help you be a thing, right? If you are not the extremists, that has implications for governance, right?
So, just taking this specific example, there are women all over the country — girls all over the country — who are dealing with a pregnancy caused by a rape. And if you can get into office, and forcefully and unambiguously give them rights, you have done a good thing for them. Even if your motivation was to stop the extremists, that’s good. And once you’ve done that — I mean, you know the whole girl effect thing that was at Nike — like, once you have enabled these girls to have a normal life rather than being saddled with that, all sorts of downstream positive effects happen.
A similar example, by the way, we’ve talked a lot about abortion, but like, guns, right? There’s a mainstream position on guns, there’s a Democratic position on guns, there’s a lot of positions on guns, but there is also a 90 percent position on guns, which is background checks. And you could imagine an entire campaign just around the first four words of the Second Amendment, a well-regulated militia means you don’t put powerful weapons in the hands of people with severe mental illness. The only way you find that out is background checks. It’s got 80-90 percent public support. That could be the issue, and if we pass that, it would be a good thing.
Now, are there other things that might be good, like, you know, an assault weapons ban or whatever? Sure, sure. But it is still an objectively good thing to have background checks.
So, your point, that you want to get into office to do good things, I would just make the gradualist plea that stopping really bad things is part of doing good things.
RG: I guess another way of making my point would be that we’re not talking about any of this in a vacuum. You know, Trump didn’t come from nowhere — although this gets back to your symptom-or-disease question — but if the country is coming apart at the seams, it feels like, at some point, you’re going to run out of duct tape trying to keep it together. And the tricks aren’t going to work anymore, and you’re going to become overwhelmed. Because the idea that Trump is the disease himself, to me, is undermined by the fact that you’ve got Trumps popping up everywhere you look around the world.
And so, to me, if the left and the center-left don’t come back with a forceful kind of recreation of a better world that stems the tide of this rising fascist energy, at some point they’re going to be over overwhelmed by it, no matter how kind of popular, and clever, and, you know, 80 percent you can make your issues that you’re running on.
DM: Yeah. It’s a good argument and a good question, Ryan, and I guess I would put it back to you this way: The history of humanity, as well as the history of the United States of America, is full of figures like Trump. Every human being, even you, even me, everyone on this podcast, every listener, every nation, every family, every tribe, we all have good and evil in us, all of us, because we’re human. And the particular kind of evil that Mr. Trump represents is a common kind of evil in human history. His governance style is, up until about three or 400 years ago, that was the norm. You know, total control of truth and what counts as truth. Absolute tribalism and misogynistic violence. Use of power to reward friends and hurt enemies; this is what Carl Sagan called “The Demon-Haunted World.” It existed up until the founding of America. And guess what? When America was founded, it continued.
If you look at the American South, between the Compromise of 1877 and the Civil Rights Movement, roughly half our country was governed the way that Trump would govern in a second term, which would be the use of violence to make sure that his side stayed in power for decades, right? This is all familiar.
The reason why I say that Trump is the disease is, until Trump came along, there were a lot of things that were outside of the Overton window of U.S. politics. Especially, you know, there’s been a particular moment in the last 50 or 60 years, since the visual evidence came out of the Holocaust in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and the visual evidence came out of the American South in the ‘50s and ‘60s about how abusive, the Bull Connor stuff. And there became a consensus for about five or six decades that certain things were a little bit beyond the pale.
And so, when you had people like Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, and Bob Dole, saying at their Republican nominating conventions, “If you are a racist, the exits are right there, we have no room for you in our party.” I mean, come on. Like, we have their tapes, we know they’re racist, we know what they were saying. We know this was not a thing that struck them as a deep moral imperative. There was a consensus, including in the Republican Party, that you had to disavow that kind of race-based fascism in order to win. And once Trump breaks that taboo, we’re now at year zero in a new era where that is back on the table. And once that’s on the table, once it is possible that you will have a rejuvenation of the kind of governance that happened, for example, in the American South for those many decades, the job is to eliminate that.
And your point about, versions of him are popping up all over? Yeah, cancer is metastatic, that’s why you’ve got to stop it. But the central fight — I mean, I actually think the central fight is the war in Europe and Putin’s invasion — but, like, the number two fight, in terms of where the world’s going, in terms of “the demon-haunted world” versus a rule of law world is, can we keep Trump out of the White House in ‘24?
RG: And last question for you — and I know a lot of people who are listening to this who are practitioners of politics will be curious — how are you thinking about 2024 Democratic primaries? And I’ve written about this before but, you know, Mainstream Democrats, the group that you’ve mentioned, plus Democratic Majority for Israel, which works very closely with Mainstream Democrats, really transformed what was possible for progressive left-wing candidates in democratic primaries in the last cycle.
I’m curious if you think you have essentially tamed the left to the point where you’re kind of moving on from Democratic primaries? Or are you guys gearing up for another test in 2024, that if you see progressive candidates that you think are too progressive popping up, that the super PACs are going to come out guns blazing on them?
DM: I think we’re OK now. For example, when No Labels did their big launch, I think No Labels is a real threat to elect Trump again. You know, the No Labels effort?
RG: For people who aren’t familiar, this is the centrist group — corporate-backed that is — getting a ballot line on all, what, 50 states? Threatening to run, like, a Manchin-type, or a Manchin candidate, against both parties.
DM: Yeah. It’s worth unpacking just a little bit. All of that is right. The No Labels group was founded a while ago, before the current era, as, essentially, look, there’s this cloakroom consensus that exists between legislators of both sides, that there’s certain things that we just need to get done, and a lot of political posturing prevents us from doing it, and we need to just do it. And you know, a lot of it was fiscal, a lot of it was regulatory, whatever. That was the idea.
But this group of people, it’s led by Mark Penn. Who, as you may know, is the pollster and political advisor who famously lost the 2008 primary to Barack Obama, and then who got sufficiently angry about being correctly blamed for that, that he became anti-Democrat. And then, Nancy Jacobson, who’s the prolific fundraiser, who has a bunch of—
RG: His wife.
DM: Yeah. His wife. And she has raised a bunch of money from New York Democrats. And they live in an environment where it’s easy to attack President Biden from the center-right. So, “Oh, do you see what he did on inflation?” And, “Oh, do you see who he appointed to this position? And oh my gosh, Lina Khan is so bad, and all these people are so bad.” And so, they get themselves worked up to this place where Biden’s really bad, Trump’s really bad, and then they do these polls that, like, out of a million people, who would you want to be president? It turns out neither Trump nor Biden comes to the top. And they’re like, oh, that means we can successfully run a third party that could win.
And people like Larry Hogan, and Joe Manchin, and so forth, you know, they like to think that they could be president someday. And so, they have this dance with donors and everybody, where they create this fiction that someone else can win.
And Bill Galston is a Brookings Institute scholar, who was one of the founders of No Labels, and he actually just published a piece in The Wall Street Journal doubling down on this point that I’m making, which is that, if you run a No Labels centrist, like a Joe Manchin, as an independent ballot line in every state, you will split the anti-Trump coalition, and therefore Trump will win. That’s the risk. And I think it’s a huge risk. It is one of the top five ways that Trump could get reelected, is if Nancy Jacobson and Mark Penn and Joe Lieberman continue in this path, and put this ballot line in every state.
When they launched this effort — this absurd, venal, effort — one of the things that they did in their video promotion is they talked about how bad the two parties were. And the visual images they included were Donald Trump on the right and AOC on the left. And so, they’re ignoring the existence of Biden. Now, I don’t think it works. I actually think No Labels has a real risk of collapsing in this effort, and I hope that they do. And I think that, in general, if you listen to the way Bernie Sanders is talking about endorsing Joe Biden, I am quite confident right now that the actual extremes of the left are pretty severely marginalized. That’s in general.
At the margins it’s a little bit like, for example, when a judge gave a ruling that was really unhelpful; this is the judge with the abortion pill. And AOC comes out and says, we should just ignore the ruling. Like, AOC is siding with JD Vance. The two of them are both like, “Yeah, rulings that we don’t like, we shouldn’t do it.” And it makes it hard to build a coalition of donors around the rule of law. But in terms of general voters, I don’t think it’s a problem anymore, and I don’t think we need to do more to fight back against it, at the moment.
RG: Well, good news and bad news for the left. They won’t be bombed by super PACs, but that’s because they’ve been thoroughly beaten down into the ground.
RG: There you go, congratulations.
Thank you for joining me. I really appreciate it, and I hope your mom enjoys this podcast.
DM: And she will agree with your questions and she’ll be frustrated with my answers, I’m sure.
RG: Wonderful, wonderful.
All right. Well, that was Dmitri, and that’s our show.
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