Political Check-In: A Rollercoaster Ride to the Midterms

Welcome back, listeners! For our season seven opener, it’s a post-summer political check-in. Amy Cobb talks with Stuart Shapiro about four factors that have changed the prospects for the midterms for the better since May. They discuss Biden’s big wins, like the Inflation Reduction Act, student loan forgiveness, and the wise choices made regarding the war in Europe. Stuart talks with Amy about the impact of the Dobbs ruling, the significance it brings to gubernatorial races, and what it means for the national election. And of course, the two talk about the Trump factor from January 6th to Mar-a-Lago and the effects on Republican congressional candidates.  Join us for all this and more and a look ahead to the rest of season seven. 

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome back to EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the interim dean at the Bloustein School, and the purpose of this podcast is to highlight the work my colleagues, and our alumni in the fields of policy, planning and health are doing to make the world, the country, and New Jersey a better place.

It’s season seven of EJB Talks. Very exciting. We have exciting plans for this season. As has become our recent tradition, we are going to start and probably end each season with a politics talk where Amy Cobb comes from behind the glass to ask me a few questions about the current state of politics, and then we will get into exciting guests with our next episode. We’ll talk a little bit about that at the end. But welcome back. We’re very grateful to have you listening. And let me turn it over to Amy.

Amy Cobb
Well, it’s already in September. It’s our 30th anniversary year, exciting times.

Stuart Shapiro
Woo hoo!

Amy Cobb
And it’s our seventh season. And this season we’ll come up on our 75th episode. So there’s been a lot to talk about, not surprising. ((laughing))

So we’re just gonna dive right in. Biden, he’s had quite the summer. He’s had some really great policy wins. Why don’t we start out positive and talk about some of the accomplishments of his administration?

Stuart Shapiro
So yeah, it has a lot has happened since we last spoke, I believe in mid-May, when things were looking fairly dire for the Biden administration and for the Democrat prospects in the midterms. But things have changed. It’s a question of how much they’ve changed from a political perspective, but it’s definitely different now than it was when we last spoke. And one of the things that changed is, the Democrats have something to brag about now, which was not true in May.

The biggest thing, obviously, is the inflation Reduction Act. And putting aside the name, which has nothing to do with the actual substance of the statute, it is probably the biggest climate change… Not probably, it is the biggest climate change legislation ever enacted by Congress and signed by a president. It will pour a lot of money into cleaner fuels, electric cars, solar, wind, renewables in general. It also allows Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. And it does a whole lot of other things that Congress could do with 50 votes, which means it has to be budgetary. So it doesn’t accomplish all of the Democrat goals. Certainly nothing close to what the original Build Back Better legislation looked like. But it’s still a healthy chunk of wins for the Democrats in that bill. And we could thank Senator Manchin for it. Everybody was slamming Senator Manchin for a very long time.

Amy Cobb
Yeah, he really did a great thing.

Stuart Shapiro
But he, he was the key to getting this done and negotiated it and eventually came around to it.

Amy Cobb
It felt like old DC, Stuart, where people, no one’s happy. You know, that great policy comes from everybody compromising right?

Stuart Shapiro
Well the difference is it was only 50 Democrats compromising, right? And old DC, you’d have both parties. And maybe there’d be people in each party unhappy. And we did have some legislation like that this term, but nothing that big. We had the gun control bill, which I think is also this summer as well. late, late spring,

Amy Cobb
It was late, late spring, early summer, remember, our summer starts before technical summer.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s right. And then of course, last week was the announcement on the student debt forgiveness, which I don’t think will have a major impact politically, but certainly was a very high priority of Democrats and was tailored in a way that will largely affect the people who most need it. So that’s another thing that Democrats will go into the midterms, bragging about. Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed to the Supreme Court. And President Biden continues to steer a very wise course on the war in Europe, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And so a lot for them to brag about going into the midterms.

Now. We are at the point, I don’t know that it’s different than it was but whether policy impacts politics is always an open question. And I think there are reasons to be skeptical that it will any of these things will have a major impact. But it’s always better to be able to run on something than to run on nothing. And right now they have something at least. The other factors that we’re going to talk about, I think are more significant in terms of their impact on the midterms.

Amy Cobb
Yeah, so I think you know, Biden’s approval rating is up, although still pretty terrible. But you know, those are all good things. You know, he has a few wins behind him. So that’s good. But I think one of the pieces that you’re talking about is Dobbs. And that impact on women… states. Why don’t you give us a little insight on where we are now, and how that’s not only going to impact politics because that’s important, but really impact the nation, and particularly, those that are the most greatly affected by the ruling?

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, so this ruling came out in mid-June. It was an earthquake. It was obviously the biggest Supreme Court decision in a long, long time. Even probably bigger than the climate and gun control decisions that accompanied it within a matter of weeks there. And, of course, the ruling does not outlaw abortion, but it gives states the authority to outlaw abortion. And for a long time, I was skeptical that this would ever happen, mostly because I thought that John Roberts and at least one other justice would care more about the political consequences of such a decision. Republicans have been running on banning abortion for so long. It’s much easier to run on that when you can’t do it. And they couldn’t do it for a long time. And indeed, Roberts voted with the three liberals on the decision. I don’t think that’s because he has any deep commitment to the pro-choice argument, but rather, he saw the consequences for the party in the country in such a radical decision. He couldn’t convince anyone else to join him, however, so it was a five-to-four decision with the ideologues on the court, particularly Alito and Thomas getting their way. Something they worked 40 or 50 years for.

The impact, in terms of on people, is going to vary greatly. There’s no impact in New Jersey. Nobody in New Jersey will be affected by this decision. New Jersey will remain pro-choice and, and will for the foreseeable if not permanent future. The impact, however, in states, in much redder states, and already there have been things in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and a number of other states, will put very significantly even up to bans on abortion in those states. Most of them will retain an exception for the woman’s life. Maybe not all of them, but almost all of them will. And but other than that it will be impossible to get an abortion in those states, unless you can get around the … (garbled)… impossible to do without breaking the law.

And so that is obviously a major change in people’s lives and women’s lives. In particular, an earthquake, and women will die as a result of this decision because they will resort to methods for abortion that are not safe in an attempt to get around the law and to avoid detection.

As for the political impact, still uncertain. It does, I think where it will be most profoundly felt is in Governor elections in states with solidly Republican legislatures. So if you’re Josh Shapiro running for governor in Pennsylvania, the Dobbs decision will almost certainly help you in November. If you are Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Tony Evers in Wisconsin, all of those states have Republican legislatures and so I do believe women will turn out to vote for the governor’s in order to protect the right to choose in those states.

Amy Cobb
I have heard that the uptick in voter registration has been women.

Stuart Shapiro
Yup.

Amy Cobb
So you know, this is definitely a turn. And I wish it wasn’t a reason.

Stuart Shapiro
But yeah, of course. I’m dubious about that registration. I mean, registration doesn’t always mean voting, unfortunately.

Amy Cobb
Right, yeah.

Stuart Shapiro
So we’re getting close to November. We’re only two months away now. And so the energy does seem to still be there on those anchored by the Dobbs decision. But they got to show up and vote and until they do we will see. But I do think it will make a difference in swing state governor races. How much of a difference it makes in the House and Senate I’m a little less confident but we will see. There are other factors, though. We still got one more to go at least, with helping the Democrats in the congressional races.

Amy Cobb
Yeah. So you know, when when we’re talking about the midterms, I think when we talked about them back in the spring, it seemed a little less possible or maybe it was a little more possible for Republicans to really really win a lot of seats or you know, possibly take away seats from Democrats. But with Dobbs with the wins, and our favorite, even Biden is using your phrase, not normal…

Stuart Shapiro
((laughing)) I have had…

Amy Cobb
No, you should have said something about that. That’s me. You’re a trendsetter.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, no, I have had at least two emails suggesting I sue the president for copyright.

Amy Cobb
You should send him your book. You’re right. It’s not normal. Let me tell you all the reasons why.

Stuart Shapiro
((laughing)) Yeah, exactly.

Amy Cobb
I may invoke him. There was a horror film in the 90s. If I say his name too many times, but Trump, Trump Trump.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah ((laughing)).. so… (laughing))

Amy Cobb
So there’s a lot going on, which we knew he wasn’t going to be quiet. But my goodness, what a summer, and he’s coming out swinging. So let’s talk about the totally not normal and talk about Trump and his effect on the election.

Stuart Shapiro
So this is the third factor. There is a fourth factor as well, I’ll mention it briefly at the end, but this is the third factor helping Democrats since we last spoke. First, we had the January 6 hearings, starting in early June. And they, I think, caused far more of an impact than anyone, including me, expected them to.

Amy Cobb
I’d never thought I’d say this but Liz Cheney…

Stuart Shapiro
Yep. Now Liz Cheney has done a spectacular job and is a hero. There’s no doubt about it. But they have been constructed in such a way as to maximize the narrative impact. The witnesses, especially Cassidy Hutchison, have been very dramatic. The image of Trump throwing pasta at a wall will not soon recede… or trying to seize the wheel of his car on January 6. And so those had a significant impact. Trump’s reaction to them had a significant impact.

Then Trump has helped the Democrats in a second way by endorsing nominees that are very weak candidates. You know, if the Democrats were totally underwater, the nominees probably wouldn’t matter much. But given the other things we’ve talked about given Dobbs, given the Biden successes and forth given the slowdown in inflation, which I think is another factor that has helped. Biden has had nothing to do with that, but it helps Biden and it helps the Democrats. Given those factors, making races closer, the awfulness of Herschel Walker as a candidate for Senate in Georgia, the awfulness of Blake Masters as a Senate candidate in Arizona. We saw what happened to Sarah Palin on Tuesday. And we’ve seen in some special elections, some pretty bad candidates lose. So Trump has helped the Democrats in a second way, by by getting candidates nominated in the party that are less likely to win even Mitch McConnell has admitted this.

And then the third way, of course, is the big news from the past few weeks, which is the FBI raid on Mar a Lago. Which again, Trump is in the news. Republicans want to be talking about inflation, they want to be talking about critical race theory, they want to be talking about whatever it is, they think will make electoral hay, instead, the headlines every day are about the FBI raiding Trump and a possible indictment coming down. And this is not a complicated one. The Russia collusion scandal was complicated. The Ukraine impeachment scandal was complicated. January 6 was not complicated, but the President’s culpability in it was complicated.

This is simple. He took documents. He lied to the Department of Justice when they asked for them back. It doesn’t take much to understand that and more importantly, your swing voters will understand that. And you are now putting Republican candidates in the position of having to explain their position on it. And that’s not a position they want to be in they want to be talking about their races. They want to be talking about factors that are favorable to them. And then even just yesterday, Trump said he would pardon a January 6 defendant. Now all of a sudden that’s another question that Republican congressional candidates have to answer that they don’t want to answer.

So you take those four factors, and I think increasing in level of importance, the wins for Biden, the Dobbs decision, the slowing down of inflation, and then the Trump factor. And all of a sudden the prospects for the midterms are better than they did when you and I last spoke on the air. So what does that mean? I think 538 probably has it about right, the Republicans are still heavy favorites to take the House, I think probably about an 80% chance is right. But it’s not going to be a wave if it’s not going to be one of those elections where they win 40 seats. They’ll win 15 or 20 seats, and they will have a small majority, similar to what the Republicans have now. That’s the way it looks now.

Things could change in the next two months. Maybe we’ll do a mid-semester podcast right before or after the midterms to discuss that. And the Senate I dare say that the Democrats are probably now favorites. It’s close. It depends on races that no one’s paying attention to in New Hampshire and Nevada. Democrats have to hold those races in order for the races where the Republicans nominated bad candidates to matter. But I think, right now, the as 538 notes, the Democrats are slight favorites to hold on to the Senate.

Amy Cobb
So wow, things changed in a few months.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, they certainly did.

Amy Cobb
Very different political landscape than just a decade or so ago. Things go much faster..

Stuart Shapiro
Than three months ago.

Amy Cobb
It used to be sleepy in the summertime.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah. Not this summer.

Amy Cobb
Not this summer. So that’s really an interesting check-in and like you said, we’ll probably check in I’m certain we’ll have to check in before the midterms. I can’t imagine it’s slowing down. And I’m curious to see what happens with all the Mar a Lago information, it seems that they’re trying to get that done — well, done right and done quickly…

Stuart Shapiro
There almost… unless there’s an indictment in the next week, that will not be one before the election. The Department of Justice has a very firm policy and against making political indictments within 60 days of an election.

Amy Cobb
Okay, so that was a great check-in. So I want to talk about, you know, this next season, I think we’re going to focus a lot on our amazing alumni. We’re celebrating our 30th. Do you want to talk about that? And our 30th for a second?

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, no, you said you took my thunder away there…

Amy Cobb
Ah.. I took your thunder!

Stuart Shapiro
It is the 30th anniversary of the Bloustein School, we’re very excited, we’re gonna be having a number of public-facing events. Please keep your eye on our website for them. On the podcast, what we’re going to do is we’re going to highlight, for the most part, 30 years of really amazing alums, and what they’ve accomplished and how they’ve sort of reflected Bloustein’s public service mission, and really taken that out into the real world and had an impact. And so we’ve got a number of exciting guests that we hope to have lined up. We’ll have our 75th podcast sometime in October, and we’re looking forward to an excellent season.

Amy Cobb
Awesome. Thanks, Stuart.

Stuart Shapiro
Thank you, Amy.

Thanks to Amy and Karyn for doing the production work on this. And we’re back! We will see you in a week or two with another talk from another expert, not me, from the Bloustein School. Till then stay safe!