EJB Talks Podcast

EJB Talks Stuart Shapiro

EJB Talks–Navigating a Politically Turbulent 2023 and the Ominous Prelude to 2024

December 18, 2023

We’re closing out the semester–and the season—of EJB Talks with a discussion of the tumultuous political events of 2023.  Dean Stuart Shapiro and former podcast producer Amy Cobb MPAP ’18 reflect on the challenging year, specifically in the House, where unexpected developments have unfolded. They delve into the chaotic dynamics within the Republican Party, the potential ramifications of Kevin McCarthy’s replacement as Speaker of the House, and the ongoing challenges in passing crucial legislation. The conversation then shifts to the 2024 presidential race, highlighting the likelihood of a rematch between Donald Trump and President Biden. Stuart explores the potential impact of Trump’s legal challenges and the divisive nature of American politics. He also raises concerns about the state of divisiveness in the United States electorate. The episode concludes with a reflection on the broader issues facing the nation and a preview of the upcoming election.

The podcast will be back in late January to early February with more timely discussions with experts in policy, urban planning, health, and informatics!

 

Transcript:

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the dean of the Bloustein School. And the purpose of this podcast is to highlight the work my colleagues and alumni in the fields of policy, planning and health are doing.

Today, we’re going to continue a tradition that we’ve had for a number of seasons for the EJB Talks podcast, and we’re going to conclude this season by talking politics. And instead of being the host, I will step over and be the guest. And in a special treat, we have brought back former producer, Amy Cobb, to ask me a few questions about politics, so that we can make this a conversation rather than me talking for 20 minutes.

Amy Cobb
Yeah, I don’t know why I came back. I don’t know. I came back for this one, because it’s awful. 2023. I’m so glad to be back.

Stuart Shapiro
It has been a difficult several months, and I really sort of blame you’re leaving Bloustein for the for the state of our politics.

Amy Cobb
I’m so glad that I have that much influence on American politics. (laughing) Yeah, this one was tough… I was excited to come back to thank you as an alum. You know, I love this podcast. This has been a pretty awful couple of…. well, it’s been a pretty awful year for politics.

When I was doing my research, I can honestly tell you the article titles were, “The Awful Politics of 2023,” “Chaos and 2023,” I mean, nothing’s been really positive. So, maybe we’ll take it as a learning experience and hope that 2024 is better.

Stuart Shapiro
Let’s hope!

Amy Cobb
Alright, so you know, considering this all started many years ago with your “Not Normal” series that turned into a book, that turned into this podcast. Let’s talk about this “not normal” 2023. So let’s talk about the first, most fun part of it all. And that was the House. And the political chaos that began January 1, and has kind of maintained its craziness until right now.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, the House has been something else this year. And certainly, it’s been a unique year in congressional history. The Senate is continues to function pretty much as it always has. I mean, they are very normal, the capital end really. But the House is another story entirely.

We talked back in the spring about Kevin McCarthy and his “Devil’s bargain,” to become Speaker of the House. And I think the devil came back for payment much sooner than Representative McCarthy had counted on.

Amy Cobb
And he’s leaving now.

Stuart Shapiro
And now he is leaving Congress altogether. And so in October, there was a vote on his removal prompted by Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, who has a very intensely, personal beef with Representative McCarthy. And eight Republicans joined all of the Democrats to oust McCarthy from the speakership. What followed was a several-week period that mirrored the chaos of January, as they strove to select a speaker that all of the Republicans could agree on. And their majority is so slim, they needed virtually all the Republicans to agree in order to choose the speaker.

And we came out of that with a relatively junior member, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, someone who is very, very conservative. Certainly further right on the political spectrum than McCarthy was. And, and he now has the unenviable job of trying to survive as speaker for 14 months. I’m not sure whether he’ll make it because he eventually will face the same choice McCarthy did which is, you either pass a budget with Democratic help, or you shut the government down. And either one of those could lead to his ouster. And so he will have something of a very difficult choice to make in January and February, when Congress reconvenes after the new year and has to again, pass a budget.

What happens then? I have no idea. But we’ll see. Meanwhile, the debate over funding Ukraine, Israel, and border security is caught up at the moment. It is caught up in the Senate actually. And even if a compromise is reached in the Senate–which make no mistake about it–will include some more border security measures. I think that many of us would find objectionable. But that’s the price of compromise in a divided government.

Amy Cobb
Isn’t that the rule that, nobody’s happy with at least a relatively decent policy? Or not even to decent policy. We just need something done! (laughing)

Stuart Shapiro
And it’s a… I don’t know whether whatever passes the Senate can pass Mike Johnson’s house. Johnson is not in favor of funding, U.S. funding of Ukraine in particular. And so, he would like to strip that out of this deal. I’m not optimistic that any of those things will get done. I think, if it doesn’t get done before early to mid-January, they’re going to have to return to the overall budget. And we’ll have to see what happens from there. I think this gets put on the back burner.

Amy Cobb
This feels like eighth grade politics. I mean it’s that, we promised that we’re going to have all the Coca Cola in the lunchroom and then they can’t get the Coca Cola in the lunchroom. So they you know, oust that guy and they bring in the next person.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah no. There is a there is definitely a juvenile quality to this. But I mean, it is hard to sort of, you know, I mean… fights over budget have become normal over the past 40 years. Unfortunately, shutdowns have become normal over the past 40 years. What’s been different this year is two things. One is the combination…. One is the the very slim majority that the Republicans have. Meaning they need every single vote in order to sustain their majority in the House.

And the second is the fact that the Republican caucus is bitterly divided. And when you put those two things together, then you have the recipe for what’s going on right now. Ironically, if the Republicans had done a better job in the election last year, and won 15 more seats, likely this would have been a very normal year. Maybe a year with some policy outcomes that I would not have liked. But a year that looked much more normal. The slim majority, it plays a big role in where we are right now.

Amy Cobb
Which seems to be indicative of really the voting public, it’s incredibly slim.

Stuart Shapiro
Yep, that we are a bitterly divided country. And we are a closely divided country. And so the combination of those two things leads to Congress flipping, the presidency flipping, the Senate flipping, all of those things relatively easily. It leads to slim majorities, which are the case in both houses of Congress and some of that is the the unfairness of the representation in the Senate. But much of it comes from the bitter divisions that we see between between the two sides in the country.

Amy Cobb
And we’re not even going to talk about people who are getting indicted or people who may be, you know, under investigation for some, you know, bad behavior in both the House and the Senate. We’re not going to bring up those names. We’re just gonna…

Stuart Shapiro
You really want to talk about George Santos, do you? And I am not going to let you! (laughing) He is a former congressman and therefore no longer relevant.

Amy Cobb
And now, in a very eighth-grade way, being used by other politicians to razz them via you know, other you know, social media. So it’s it’s eighth grade. It feels very middle school. Right now.

Stuart Shapiro
You can get George Santos to do a cameo if you’d like.

Amy Cobb
You can. Yes, you can. I think Fetterman used him (laughing)

Stuart Shapiro
As someone noted in….. we’ve always said in America that there are second acts. (laughing) What’s changed now is there’s not even an intermission.

Amy Cobb
Not even…. I think was a day.

Stuart Shapiro
A day. That’s correct.

Amy Cobb
Well, there’s the positive spin Stuart. There’s always a, you know, closed door, open window, you know,

Stuart Shapiro
That’s exactly right (laughing).

Amy Cobb
(laughing) Yay. Okay. So, since we’ve, you know, talked about the House and we’re not even going to talk about the Senate, because they have their own long-term problems. Um, this kind of pulls us to some kind of scary propositions for 2024. We have a setup for the presidential race that kind of feels very, déjà vu all over again. And (laughing) I know you liked that.

Stuart Shapiro
Well, it should. I mean, we are going to have, barring a medical surprise for either of the two likely candidates–which is not impossible, given they’re both of their ages, of course. It will again, be Donald Trump against President Biden running for the presidency. And everyone says they don’t want that. But the Republicans are going to vote for Trump and Biden is the only viable Democratic candidate. And so into the breach once more. We will see these two candidates slug it out over the course of this year.

We have the Republican primaries ahead of us starting with the Iowa caucuses in almost exactly a month now, January 15 I believe they are. But it would surprise me very much, if anything besides a resounding Donald Trump victory is what we see. I mean, the field has winnowed quite a bit already there. We are already down to four viable candidates besides Trump. Governor Christie, Ambassador Haley, Governor DeSantis, and Vivek Ramaswamy.

Amy Cobb
Well, it’s going to be entertaining, no matter what.

Stuart Shapiro
But those are our four non-Trump candidates. Ramaswamy will be gone after Iowa. I suspect Christie will be as well.

Amy Cobb
Our voice of reason currently? That’s a snicker everybody from New Jersey completely understands (laughing)

Stuart Shapiro
He may drop out before New Hampshire to give Haley a better shot. Because that is her one shot, she has to win or come very close to winning New Hampshire in order to make this a race. And I would be very surprised if that happens. We should wrap this up on Super Tuesday.

Now we should note that Trump’s January 6 trial is still scheduled to occur in March. So the one scenario in which Trump does not get the nomination is that Haley performs well in New Hampshire and/or South Carolina, her native state. Maybe doesn’t even win but well enough to stay in the race, and then something happens at the trial that craters Trump’s support. Again, I do not think there’s any reason to think that would happen. His supporters seem to be energized by the charges against him. Indeed, many of them already believe January 6, was a false flag operation or something that was justified and that the election of 2020 was stolen. And so I don’t know that the trial can change any of those views.

It does mean, however, that the Republican nominee for president may be convicted felon by the time the general election starts. Now that’s if the trial proceeds in March. There were some things that happened yesterday that make that a little more likely. And that it resolves sometime before the Republican convention. But both of those things are possible. And so it may be President Biden versus convict Trump in our in our 2024 election.

Amy Cobb
(laughing) So, the question is, has this, has anything, anything like this ever happened before in any way? And a felon…. can be the president?

Stuart Shapiro
So yeah, no, there is no rule against it. There…I mean, the book was called “Not Normal” for a reason.

Amy Cobb
Yeah, thanks a lot for that. (laughing)

Stuart Shapiro
We’ve gone from just not normal, to very, very nuts. Eugene….yeah, that’s the title of my next book (laughing). Eugene Debs, a socialist, was a third party candidate who got single digits, but not a triple… not a trivial number of votes. He was in jail during one of his presidential campaigns in the 1920s I want to say. That’s the only precedent for this. There’s certainly no precedent for a major party candidate, someone who’s very much a viable winner of the election to have convictions on his record.

Amy Cobb
And the scariest part too is, the language that he’s using and the people running his campaign are using, just flat out utilizing. Language like dictatorship, and all those fun synonyms.

Stuart Shapiro
For those who missed it, Sean Hannity was actually trying to get Trump off the hook.

Amy Cobb
He was, he was.

Stuart Shapiro
And said, hey, people said you’re going to be a dictator if you get elected again. And Trump didn’t want off the hook, he said, Well, just on day one.

Amy Cobb
Yes.

Stuart Shapiro
And as I noted on social media, being a dictator on day one is like that, you know, you get three wishes, and you use one of them to give yourself an infinite number of wishes. There are very much plans in place, by not by Trump because he doesn’t sweat the details for sure, but by the people he has surrounded himself with, to ensure that those things that were constraints on his power during his first term….

Amy Cobb
Like laws? Separation of power?

Stuart Shapiro
Like the media, like the bureaucracy, like the military, and by Congress, and by his own appointees. Who generally saw–at least the first round of appointees saw their role as keeping him in check—that those appointees will not be there in term two. And there are plans to neuter the civil service, to take control of the military, and largely to, if possible, ignore the courts and Congress, but that doesn’t mean all those things will happen. There were a lot of fears in 2017. And I certainly had some of them. Institutions rose up and did resist and did, for all the insanity of those four years, we did emerge intact with a new president and with one who was very much as normal as you could get in President Biden.

And so those things are still in place, and those forces of resistance will still be there and will push back against a president with dictatorial ambitions. But many of them were stretched to their limits and 2017 to 2020. And the extent to which they would hold during the second Trump term is unclear. And I wouldn’t say, you know, if Trump wins give up all hope, but it is a scary prospect for for democracy in the United States.

Amy Cobb
Yeah, it’s not, it’s not feeling like, really great right now, Stuart.

Stuart Shapiro
You didn’t like 2023? Wait until you see 2024!

Amy Cobb
I think a lot of things that take a long time, you know, policies or written laws are changed, it takes a little bit of time to see, you know, what the outcome is. You know, the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, I know you all have seen what’s happened in Texas over the last couple of weeks. It’s just that’s one very small thing and a lot of very big things that could come out of a second presidency.

On the other hand, you have Biden, who, as much as I appreciate his normalcy. I think part of his problem is, you know, he’s had problems too, like any president. You have inflation. Tough, little bit of a tough economy. You have the border issues. You have Hunter Biden, who doesn’t lend to anything great for for President Biden. And even the ridiculous amount of time you’re spending on the impeachment stuff, which should make anybody unhappy, considering all the things we have going on. But what you know, what can Biden do? And what are the hopes that he has over the next 12-plus months to get it together?

Stuart Shapiro
So the challenge is that we are, as we said earlier, a very closely and bitterly divided electorate. The presidential election next year will be close no matter what. It will be close if President Biden is the nominee, it will be close if some “dream Democrat” that everyone thinks exists, but really doesn’t, were the nominee. It will be close if Donald Trump is the nominee. It will be close if Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis is the nominee.

Now in a close election, everything including who the candidate is, matters. And what the candidate says and does matter. Donald Trump is clearly the weakest Republican candidate. And so if you want to ask what Joe Biden can do to get reelected. If that was the only thing we were trying to optimize, hoping that Trump is the nominee would be Biden’s best path to reelection. Because I know Trump leads Biden in the polls right now. But as hard as it is to believe for those of us that are political junkies, many people have not yet focused on the election. Trump will be very easy to campaign against.

Amy Cobb
There’s definitely some stuff going on. But I think a lot of people are just like, this can’t be happening again, I can’t think about that right now.

Stuart Shapiro
And so that will, that will help Biden. I think it would be a 50-50 chance against Trump and an underdog against either Haley or DeSantis. But I also think another candidate would not move the needle much from where things are. People are going to vote for the incumbent party or against the incumbent party, based on their lives. And inflation is still very real, even though it has come down considerably. It’s still very hard to buy a house because interest rates are so high. And there are a lot of things out there that have people worried, have people concerned. Certainly what’s going on in the Middle East and other issues, although Americans don’t generally vote foreign policy, despite it dominating the headlines at the moment. So yeah, it’s gonna be a close election and we have to steel ourselves for that.

Amy Cobb
Well, at least you have a whole bunch of work already done for you for your next book.

Stuart Shapiro
The “Very, Very Nuts” book? Yeah, no.

Amy Cobb
I’ll write one of the forwards, it’s totally fine. “I don’t know why we’re here again.”

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, no, no reruns never do as well as the original.

Amy Cobb
Or, you know, the seasons have gone on too long and the Fonz has jumped the shark. We literally have jumped to shark!

Stuart Shapiro
Question is, has the United States jumped the shark?

Amy Cobb
I think we’ve jumped the shark. My personal feeling is that we’re already to “Joanie Loves Chachi.” We’re way past the Fonz jumping. (laughing)

Stuart Shapiro
(laughing) Let’s hope our audience is old for this one, Amy! (laughing). You’re using references that are not going to… my students aren’t going to understand

Amy Cobb
My favorite thing that ever happened was when you referenced “Back to the Future,” and I think I was the only one who laughed at your jokes.

Stuart Shapiro
Nice.

Amy Cobb
It’s fine. We’re here together. Gen X is.. we’re still young at heart.

Stuart Shapiro
There we go. There we go. Well, thank you for coming back. And we will see you again perhaps at the end of the primary season.

Amy Cobb
Yeah, I definitely will have to check-in. Hopefully, it’ll be a better check-in than this. Yay. (laughing)

Stuart Shapiro
In addition to Amy, a big thank you to Tamara Swedberg and Karyn Olsen. Have a wonderful holiday season. We will be back in late January, or early February with another talk from another expert from the Bloustein School. Until then, stay safe.

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