Welcome to The Back Booth, a weekend edition of The DC Brief. Here, every Saturday, TIME’s political newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The DC Brief here.
It’s sometimes easy to forget, but the citizens of the District of Columbia don’t actually decide the results of the midterm elections.
So as the past week unfolded and Washington gnashed its teeth in performative anxiety, clever strategists cast their eyes beyond the peripheral at how regulations might ripple at the precinct, how indicators economics could scare pension funds and how the crisis in the US and Mexico border can be hijacked to fit a political narrative. Facts and stories are two separate ideas in American politics, but both can be weaponized.
So throughout the week, The DC Brief chatted via email with two of the industry’s most fact-based strategists. On the right, Danny Diaz helped President George W. Bush confirm two Supreme Court justices, served as a top spokesman for the Republican National Committee, and was the leader of Jeb Bush’s White House bid, one of the four presidential campaigns he worked on.
From the left, Scott Merrick brings experience as a local elected official, dating back to his teenage years in the New Hampshire Legislature. Most recently, he served as Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s liaison with the New Hampshire business community, as New Hampshire leader to Senator Amy Klobuchar, and later as a senior adviser to Joe Biden in the Granite State.
Both are now consultants. This conversation has been slightly edited.
Elliott: So it’s Monday and I look at President Biden makes a big deal about finalizing the ‘ghost gun rule‘ and appoint an ATF leader. You both know gun politics. Is it going to do anything to energize the President’s base, or is it just going to upset people who really love their guns? Or is it actually a political decision that can save lives?
Merrick: Regardless of your views on guns, I don’t think this phantom gun rule does anything to really move the needle on gun policy or politics. Will it embarrass gun advocates? Most likely. Will this be the question that gets Democrats moving? Probably not. Will it save lives? I hope so. Seven months from now, when voters go to the polls, I don’t think it will be this rule that will spur Democrats to action. In fact, seven months from now, I’d be shocked if the vast majority of voters actually knew or remembered this rule.
If the purpose of gun policy is to truly save lives, lawmakers would review handgun regulation and policy. According to Pew Research, 59% of gun-related murders in 2020 were caused by handguns. Also, when it comes to gun-related deaths, the same Pew Research study showed that in 2020, there were more gun-related suicide deaths than gun-related murders. Saving lives from gun-related deaths will take more than a ghost gun rule.
Diaz: In 2020, many Americans were looking for both normalcy and functionality in government. Based on decades in Washington and an innate ability to relate to people on an emotional level, Biden has resonated with swing voters. Biden’s actions on a host of issues seem to confirm he’s looking to retain voters who should already be in his corner. People wanted a capable leader who would get things done. Instead, they have someone who has not governed effectively or collaboratively.
Elliot: It seems the White House is channeling some Disney right now and buzzing We don’t talk about Manchin. Is there a way to resuscitate Biden’s social spending plan?
Diaz: At this point, President Biden has ceded his political capital and has little to no ability to persuade people on Capitol Hill. To the extent that the social spending agenda is at stake, there is much more outside the control of the Biden administration than within it. In fact, if the response to the White House’s position on Title 42 is any indication, they should prepare for more Democrats in Washington to visibly break with them in an effort to present a veneer of independence.
Merrick: With regard to the economy, it should be noted that under President Biden, this economy has created almost 8 million jobs since he took office, and a record 6.6 million during in its first year alone as the economy grew 5.7%, the strongest growth in nearly 40 years. Wages rose in March. The unemployment rate is close to what it was before COVID.
From the US bailout to his leadership on vaccinations, President Biden continues to deliver on the promises he made during his campaign. He introduced a landmark bipartisan infrastructure bill that will enable critical investments across the country.
There is more to do. Inflation is a real problem. Costs at the gas pump and in grocery stores are impacting American families. If the Biden administration can work with Congress to put in place measures that have bipartisan support and directly reduce costs, like child care tax credits for example, this president will have delivered in two years what many of its predecessors failed to do in four years.
Diaz: Gunshot. Hunter.
Merrick: While these news clippings that Danny pointed to provide a general summary of the moment, particularly politically, they don’t quite capture the economic signals that indicate inflation may be plateauing. As reported in Politico this morning, core inflation has slowed and other key indicators point to what could be the start of an inflation slowdown.
Elliot: That’s a pretty accurate summary of the moment. And one that I’m not sure the White House fully understands at this time. That said, we all remember about 2010 when it felt like the Obama administration was fighting for its life every day — and, for many, losing — but still managing to win a second term. It’s cold comfort for House Democrats, but it’s instructive.
Merrick: I agree, and especially with the fact that many Americans don’t necessarily fully understand inflation, but they do understand the rising prices of everyday items and they will blame whoever is in power. But it’s also only April, and the electorate tends to have very short-term memories. If prices drop before the fall, Democrats may be able to avoid a repeat of 2010.
Diaz: A few points here. Nonwhite voters are more likely than white voters to say the highest inflation in four decades is triggering major financial pressure in their lives and that appears to be giving Republicans an opening with a growing segment of the electorate that traditionally favors the democrats, the last wall Street Log survey shows.
Voters also gave Democrats low marks for handling inflation and the economy, which 50% cited as the top issue they want the federal government to address. The conflict in Ukraine was No. 2, with 25% of voters saying it was the most important.
A majority of voters, 63%, said they disapproved of Mr. Biden’s handling of rising costs, the president’s worst mark on six policy issues studied in the poll. Meanwhile, 47% of voters said Republicans were better able to handle inflation, compared to 30% who preferred Democrats.
Since the last Log survey, Americans faced a spike in Covid-19 cases due to the highly contagious variant of Omicron, bottlenecks in supply chains that left voids on store shelves in January and spikes in gasoline and other consumer prices that pushed inflation to 40-year highs.
And we are not done. As the contract for union workers at West Coast ports comes to an end, the prospect of a union standoff threatens another shock to the global economy.
In addition, buying a house will cost more.
Merrick: I think we can all agree that inflation has a major impact on how voters view lawmakers in office, and right now that’s not good for Democrats. But many voters have yet to decide who they will vote for in November.
If there’s a wide range of key voters who are both undecided and don’t anticipate the situation improving, then does it become more of a game of expectations and the Democrats’ ability to drive home the importance of any improvement in inflation and lower costs of goods?
Elliott: Thank you both for your sharp insights here. I like a good conversation that brings up facts, not just feelings. I’m just going to ask: by Elon Musk offer for Twitter, what does it do for our political discourse?
Diaz: We tend to operate in a bubble in our industry, and the number of ordinary Americans who can and are persuaded by the general conversation in politics, whether earned, organic, etc. on Twitter is very limited. It indexes the most influential and least persuasive people, so this needs to be taken into account when we think about the overall impact.
Merrick: I couldn’t agree more with Danny on that.
Elliott: Again, thank you both for your ideas this week.
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