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The Atlantic Politics Daily: An Evangelical Ultimatum – The Atlantic

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It’s Friday, December 20. In today’s newsletter: The Christianity Today editorial that shook American politics. Plus: that thing about wine caves …

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« TODAY IN POLITICS »

President Trump, speaking from the nearby White House, addresses attendees of the March for Life rally on January 19, 2018. (Eric Thayer / Reuters)

“That is not only a violation of the Constitution.”

Public evidence of President Donald Trump as a devout Christian isn’t plentiful. (In one now-infamous 2016 campaign speech, for instance, he stumbled over the name of one book of the Bible, citing “Two Corinthians.”)

In the lead-up to 2016, white evangelicals were more divided about Trump. Since Trump took office, white evangelicals have remained among his most loyal backers.

Some 82 percent of white evangelical Republicans now want Trump to stay on the party ballot in 2020, making them the subset of the party that backs him most vehemently. Impeachment seems to be pushing white evangelicals even closer to Trump.

(To be clear, there’s a yawning racial gap within the faith: In the 2017 Alabama Senate special election, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Republican Roy Moore, while 95 percent of black evangelicals went for Democrat Doug Jones.)

This week, an editorial in Christianity Today stunned political observers by calling for Trump’s removal. The magazine, a venue for mainstream evangelical thought, was founded by the preacher Billy Graham, whose brand of bipartisanship seems incongruous with the faith’s politicization.

As Mark Galli, the publication’s editor in chief, told my colleague Emma Green, “Yes, he’s done some good things that I am grateful for. But the moral scales no longer balance.”

Read Emma’s full interview with Galli.

—Saahil Desai

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« IDEAS AND ARGUMENTS »

(Chris Carlson / AP)

1. “Not so long ago, working- and middle-class people were mostly spared the details of wealth.”

One debate-night phrase still echoing through the insular halls of Twitter: wine caves (the underground rooms where wine is stored and aged). Stay with us; there’s actually more to this.

“Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” Senator Elizabeth Warren had said during the final Democratic debate of 2019.

Pete Buttigieg, who was recently photographed at a fundraising dinner in a crystal-studded wine cave, hit back (Warren has a “net worth 100 times mine,” he said).

The real takeaway here may be more about how the internet changed the way we see rich people.

2. “The notion of a purity test by which candidates are measured is similar to another political metaphor drawn from chemical analysis.”

What followed the wine-caves exchange between Warren and Buttigieg was one on the purity test.

Since when did the phrase become ubiquitous political speak? The linguist Ben Zimmer takes a look.

One early political foray for the purity test occurred in 1912, when Kansas was deciding whether to adopt an amendment to the state constitution extending full suffrage to women.   

Ben traces the full history of the phrase.


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« EVENING READ »

(Nazario Graziano)

Limping Toward Denuclearization

Impeachment has overshadowed another urgent story, one that also hinges on the president’s direct relationship with a foreign leader.

Desperate to salvage the détente, Trump has been warning Kim not to “interfere with the U.S. Presidential Election” (as if North Korea’s totalitarian leader has qualms about messing with American democracy) or to “void his special relationship with the President of the United States” (as if their bromance were contractual). He has relentlessly downplayed the recent spurt of missile tests, even as they’ve become more sophisticated and harder to dismiss.

“You can’t have the North Koreans, for example, do a submarine-launched [nuclear-capable] missile test and say it’s okay, while your closest ally, Japan, is going batshit,” Joseph Yun, who served as the State Department’s North Korea envoy from 2016 to 2018, told me.

Uri Friedman’s full story pieces together how, exactly, the administration’s Korea policy got so messy.


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Today’s newsletter was written by Saahil Desai, an associate editor on our Politics team, and edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters. You can reply directly to this newsletter with questions or comments, or send a note to politicsdaily@theatlantic.com.

Your support makes our journalism possible. Subscribe here.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

Saahil Desai is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers politics and policy.

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Mitch McConnell is the apex predator of U.S. politics – The Washington Post

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Howard Fineman is an NBC News analyst and a RealClearPolitics contributing correspondent.

When Minnesota Democrat Al Franken was in the Senate, the only way he could even briefly befriend Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was to compliment the Republican leader on a speech. One day, after McConnell had given what passed for heartfelt remarks in praise of Senate spouses, Franken approached him to say it was a “lovely speech.” A comedian in an earlier life, Franken then proceeded to kid him on the square. “Mitch, I have to say, I really like your speeches better when they aren’t in the service of evil.”

“I like the evil ones better,” McConnell replied, with a thin smile.

No joke. At 78, after a half-century in politics, Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. now stands at the precipice of what most Republicans only a generation or two ago would have said was impossible: conservative domination of the Supreme Court.

For McConnell, this is a personal triumph worthy of the history books. But history may record it differently. It seems probable that McConnell’s epitaph will note instead that no one since the Southern segregationists of the 1940s and 1950s did more to cripple the proper functioning of all three branches of government, not to mention faith in the very idea of one America.

Historian Rick Perlstein has long described this chapter in the American story as “Nixonland,” a jagged terrain of White racial fear and populist resentment of the federal authority that began in the mid-1960s. But while GOP presidents from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump have tilled that soil when it suited their purposes, McConnell has been, over the years, its most constant gardener, mixing arcane, cynically hypocritical legislative procedure and judicial appointments to turn emotion into lasting policy.

He has jammed hundreds of conservative judges onto the federal bench, making it younger, Whiter and more male — and far more partisan — in the process. In concert with the Federalist Society, McConnell is transforming the federal judiciary from sometimes-defenders of the poor, immigrants and people of color into the Praetorian Guard of corporations, the wealthy, and those whose cultural and racial privileges make them, at best, oblivious to their collective responsibility to all Americans. At the same time, McConnell is standing in the schoolhouse door of dozens if not hundreds of pieces of needed legislation, rendering the “world’s greatest deliberative body” an empty pantomime of itself.

And if he succeeds in forcing another pliable justice onto the Supreme Court, he may prove responsible for undercutting whatever legitimacy a possibly disputed presidential election might have if, as many suspect, it must be settled by that court. One reason to move fast and give the court a 6-3 conservative majority? To take the relatively independent (and therefore unreliable) Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. out of the equation.

McConnell has been around so long people think they know him. But they don’t, and that is by design. When you are the apex predator of U.S. politics, you don’t really care what anyone thinks. In Kentucky, where I worked for six years as McConnell was beginning his rise, he is not so much loved as endured. People talk about him like the rainy Ohio River Valley weather: It’s a pain, but it waters the crops. He retains an iron grip on state politics, has been elected statewide six times and is likely to win a seventh term in November. Democrats are pouring millions into defeating him. It’s not a great bet.

McConnell, reduced to his essence, is a state party chairman on steroids. His eye for detail, and his feral sense of approaching threats, is total. In the summer of 1968, working for a U.S. Senate candidate that year, he traveled the state from Pikeville to Paducah with another young Republican, Jon Yarmuth, now the Democratic member of the U.S. House representing Louisville. After work, as they hunkered down at yet another rural motel, Yarmuth would suggest that they go out for a drink. Mitch would have none of it. “What he wanted to do was sit in the room,” Yarmuth recalled, “and read every report and statistic about the county.”

His granular focus on local matters derives in part from the fact that McConnell isn’t Kentucky-bred. He was born in North Alabama and spent his childhood there and in Georgia before moving to Louisville as a teen. He and his family lived in the city’s South End, where newcomers from the Deep South settled in a city whose moneyed ruling class saw itself as tweed-clad country cousins of the Eastern elite. McConnell absorbed the middle-class resentments of his neighborhood.

From boyhood on, he pursued every title he could find: high school student council president; college student president, law school bar association president, state president of the Ripon Society and so on, up the ziggurat of perches and entitlements, all the way to Senate majority leader.

These days he pitches himself to historians as the heir to the godfather of distributed power, James Madison. McConnell has a point, in one sense. The contrapuntal effect of the federal courts is valuable, even indispensable; a piece of Newtonian balance that the founders knew was important. But McConnell is not interested in balance: He is interested only in total dominance, and in a bulwark against change, whatever the cost to the country.

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Why Supreme Court politics in 2020 look way different from 2016 or 2018 – CNN

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We don’t know what the ultimate effect of any Supreme Court battle will be on the 2020 election. Still, we can look at the playing board. It suggests the 2020 electoral calculus has fundamental differences with the electoral math of 2016 and 2018 when it comes to Supreme Court nominations.
Yesterday, I noted that more of former Vice President Joe Biden’s supporters have said the Supreme Court was important to their vote than Trump supporters. That’s very different from 2016, when Trump backers said the court was more important to their vote than Hillary Clinton backers.
The contrasts go deeper than that, however.
Trump often struggled with rallying the base in 2016. There were points in that cycle when he was receiving only about 75% of the Republican vote in polls. A Supreme Court nomination was the perfect way to get the base to support his cause.
Trump, though, has centered pretty much his entire presidency around appealing to his base. He’s done so, oftentimes, at the expense of bringing in more moderate voters to his cause. It’s paid off for Trump.
Republicans are backing Trump at very high numbers now. A NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll out on Friday put Trump’s support at 94% among likely Republican voters. Our last CNN/SSRS poll showed that 99% of very conservative Republicans were supporting Trump.
In other words, Trump already has the base behind him in a way he didn’t at many times in 2016. Any more gains he could make with them would be very limited.
There are distinctions between the 2018 and 2020 Supreme Court nomination showdown as well.
You may recall Republicans picked up four Senate seats and lost two for a net gain of 2 in 2018. This came after Kavanaugh was nominated in late summer and confirmed early that fall.
It does seem like the Kavanaugh nomination was a boon to a number of Republican Senate candidates. Republicans knocked out Democratic senators in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. In all of those states, a majority of voters who said that Kavanaugh was a factor in their vote cast their ballots for the Republican Senate candidate. Those who said it wasn’t a factor either split their vote or a majority went for the Democratic nominee.
All of those seats were in states where Trump won by 19 points or more in 2016. That is, they were very red states.
The Kavanaugh hearing, if anything, rallied the Republican base in red states.
In the only purple state where Republicans defeated a Democratic senator (Bill Nelson in Florida), voters who said his vote against Kavanaugh was a factor in their decision were actually slightly more likely to back the Democratic nominee.
The 2018 House elections tell a similar story. Unlike in the Senate, where a limited number of seats is up every cycle, every House seat was up for election in 2018.
House Republicans were not helped by the Kavanaugh hearings.
Democrats’ advantage on the generic congressional ballot was in the high single digits before the Kavanaugh hearings and remained as such through the election. Democrats ended up with a net gain of 40 seats in the House.
The 2020 presidential race will be fought on, if anything, more favorable terrain than the 2018 House elections. Democrats don’t need to worry about winning a majority of congressional districts. They only need to win a majority of electoral votes.
Likewise, the 2020 Senate terrain is totally different. Only one of the seats Democrats are defending is in deep red territory. That Alabama seat was already in major danger of flipping prior to any Supreme Court battle.
Meanwhile, the Democrats’ easiest path to a Senate majority runs through purple states. Democrats’ easiest pickup opportunities are in Arizona (a state where the same Republican Senate candidate lost in 2018), Colorado and Maine. Biden is clearly ahead in the polls in all of these states.
The other two best pickup opportunities are in states where Trump is likely either up by a point or two (Iowa) or down by a point or two (North Carolina). In neither state is the Democratic Senate nominee running too far ahead of Biden.
The bottom line is that, while any estimates of what the upcoming Supreme Court fight means for the election are just guesses, 2016 and 2018 are not good road maps to understanding the dynamic in 2020. The situations are quite different.

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The wildly unpredictable politics of the SCOTUS opening – CNN

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* How Republicans see the politics: For President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans, anything that changes the national conversation from the chief executive’s mishandling of the coronavirus is a good thing.
A fight over whether he should try to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s vacant seat before the 2016 election — and whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can muster 50 votes to confirm the pick — isn’t a sure winner for Republicans, but it’s better, in their minds, to the sure loser that is a referendum election on the pandemic (and Trump’s handling of it).
What we know a fight over a court seat will do is rally the Republican base behind Trump. The GOP’s hardcore conservatives have generally stuck with Trump almost solely because of the number of federal judges he has appointed and the Senate has confirmed. Many may have wandered a bit amid Trump’s demonstrably poor response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but a court fight may be just what the President and his campaign need to bring those lingerers back into the fold.
The argument to do that is (relatively) simple: You may not like how Trump tweets or acts, but look at what he has done — in particular a total overhaul of the federal judiciary that ensures a conservative bent in the judicial branch for decades to come. (I continue to believe the single strongest moment of Trump’s 2016 campaign was when he released a list of who he might choose as Supreme Court nominees.)
If Trump can change the conversation in the race into one focused on the battle for the judiciary, it will have a cascading effect in Republicans’ fight for the Senate majority too.
Only two Republican senators up for reelection this November — Maine’s Susan Collins and Colorado’s Cory Gardner — represent states where Trump lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016. 
Which means the 21 other Republican seats are in territory that Trump won.  Which, in theory, would mean that if they could simply turn out the GOP vote they would have a good chance at winning. (This is, of course, not true in all 21 of the states. Take Arizona, for example, where the partisanship of the state is clearly moving away from Republicans.)
The quick endorsement of a vote pre-election on Trump’s eventual nominee by the likes of Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis — both of whom face serious challenges this fall — reflects that belief within the GOP strategist world.
* How Democrats see the politics: If Trump’s entire first term has been defined by norm-busting, then this attempt to confirm a justice less than two months before a presidential election is the final act of this trend.
Democrats will relentlessly point out all of the quotes from Republican senators during the attempted 2016 confirmation of Merrick Garland to the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia as proof-positive of GOP hypocrisy.
And there are LOTS of quotes. Perhaps the two best/worst:
* “It has been 80 years since a Supreme Court vacancy was nominated and confirmed in an election year. There is a long tradition that you don’t do this in an election year.” — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz
* “I want you to use my words against me. If there’s a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.” — South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham
Pretty bad, right?
Democrats will combine that hypocrisy attack with ramped-up pressure on senators in tough races like Gardner and Iowa’s Joni Ernst — as well as appeals to institutionalists like retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander  (Tennessee) and Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) to keep McConnell from the 50 votes he needs.
If Republicans do wind up confirming Trump’s pick — and, at the moment, they can only lose one more GOP senator after both Collins and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski have said they oppose making the appointment before the election — then Democrats will be faced with whether they make good on a MASSIVE threat making the rounds this weekend: Adding seats to the Supreme Court if they retake the majority this fall.
Several prominent Democrats have floated the idea of expanding the court, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s running mate. (Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said during his presidential campaign that he would go from 9 seats to 15 on the court.)
Biden, however, has been resistant to that idea. “I would not get into court packing,” he said at an October 2019 debate. “We add three justices; next time around, we lose control, they add three justices. We begin to lose any credibility the court has at all.”
The question for Democrats, then, is how much — if at all — they inject the idea of adding court seats into the fall campaign. On the one hand, it might excite their base. On the other, it could play into Trump’s hands by giving a preview of what Democratic control at all levels of government might look like.
The Point: This is a high-wire walk with no net for both parties. And how they navigate this unexpected development could well shape not just the 2020 election, but the future of two parties over the next decade.

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