Hunter becomes the hunted
Chuck Schumer forced the Senate into a rare closed session on Friday, in a last-ditch effort to plead with four Republicans to join Democrats to slow down the rush to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court with just days to go until the election, and tens of millions of votes already cast. The floor joust continued on Saturday between Mitch McConnell and Schumer, as McConnell continues to barrel toward a final vote next week, unless something gives.
Biden meanwhile has ended the questions about whether he’ll increase the size of the court by proposing a commission study it, but if the Court drops any radical rulings early in his term, that commitment doesn’t bar Congress from passing a bill packing the court, or breaking up various circuit courts and adding judges -- which is badly needed anyway, just as a matter of a functioning judiciary amid an increasing caseload. And with McConnell stuffing the courts with unqualified 33 year olds, it’s the only way to balance things out.
All of that, of course, depends on a Biden victory and on Democrats taking the Senate. That’s what the polls are forecasting, but so much is unknown, it’s impossible to bank on anything. It’s possible Biden will win Florida and it’ll be an early night. But if not, it could come down to Pennsylvania, where Republicans have been working overtime to suppress and challenge votes at every turn.
I have a long story on Pennsylvania that looks into how the state got where it is, and at the state of the Democratic Party there. Pennsylvania might become a street brawl, and the local Democrats just aren’t ready. I wrote the story with Akela Lacy, who was born in Philadelphia, and it focuses on Allentown, where I was born. That story is here, and the opening section is below.
Our podcast this week is on the final presidential debate, and the effort by Trump to inject Hunter Biden into the final stage of the campaign, an effort that is running headlong into a rather remarkable collective decision by the mainstream media to barely touch the story. The decision may end up further eroding trust in the media, and for little gain: There’s no real reason to think this Hunter story is effective for Trump anyway.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, President Barack Obama’s political advisers had urged him to keep the federal rescue package to well under $1 trillion, lest the American people suffer from “sticker shock.” He did, and unemployment continued climbing throughout 2009 and a foreclosure crisis ripped through middle- and working-class neighborhoods. By the next winter, it was clear that a different type of suffering was underway and that the intervention had been woefully insufficient.
In December 2009, Obama was back before Congress, urging another round of stimulus. Days before, to beat the drums for more money for jobs, Obama headed for a city of maximal symbolism: Allentown, Pennsylvania.
As much or more than any other city, Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley had become a cultural stand-in for America itself. The story of the small, eastern Pennsylvania town and its hard-working, resilient people was the story of America. The great Bethlehem Steel had helped build the country and win World War II. Mack Trucks, centered in Allentown, stood for the rugged, anonymous working man, who gave everything, asked for nothing in return, and quietly kept the country running. Alpo, an abbreviation for Allen Products, the pet food brand founded in Allentown in 1936, represented the nation’s bounding spirit, the promise that a hard day’s work would be rewarded with a home, a garage, a fenced-in yard for the family dog, and a better life for the children.
The city’s decline in the 1980s was similarly a proxy for the collapse of America’s manufacturing base and, along with it, its middle-class dream. Bethlehem Steel lost billions throughout the ’80s and halved its workforce. In 1987, Mack Trucks moved production not to Mexico but to South Carolina in search of cheap, union-free labor. By the summer of 1992, at the peak of the recession that cost George H.W. Bush his presidency, unemployment was approaching 8 percent.
Over the next decade, the Lehigh Valley refashioned itself, like many other hopeful communities, as “the Silicon Valley of the east,” dreaming of wooing tech firms to the region, boasting of its low cost of living and easy access to New York City and Philadelphia. By the time Obama visited in 2009, it was ready to be a story of American perseverance and reinvention. “The folks in Allentown — and in all the Allentowns across our country — are the most dedicated, productive workers in the world. All they’re asking for is a chance and a fair shake,” Obama declared. “And that’s exactly what I’m working to give them.”
A year earlier, the Lehigh Valley had helped deliver Obama the presidency, despite an all-out push there by GOP nominee John McCain. Obama carried Lehigh County (57-42) and Northampton County (55-43), while even winning the small, rural, white working-class slice of the valley, Carbon County (50-48), on his way to winning the state’s 21 Electoral College votes by a 10-point margin. Just eight years later, the state would flip red for the first time in close to three decades, ushering Donald Trump into the White House. Northampton went 50-46 for Trump, while Lehigh County turned a lighter hue of blue, with Hillary Clinton winning just 50-45.
Pennsylvania threatens to be just as consequential this year. Democratic strategists and polling analysts at FiveThirtyEight have said that the winner of Pennsylvania, whether it be Scranton native Joe Biden or Trump, will then have more than an 80 percent chance of winning the White House. An analysis of election returns over the last 100 years from Lehigh Valley Live, a local Easton paper, in September put Northampton at the center of that equation, showing that the county has backed the winning presidential candidate all but three times since 1920.
As the election nears, Biden’s advantage among Pennsylvania voters has continued to grow. Early fears that Biden would be hurt by the Democratic Party’s slightly-less-friendly posture toward fracking than the GOP’s have not been borne out, said Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who had earlier raised the alarm on that issue. Biden, he said, is much less disliked than Clinton and hasn’t had a problem consolidating the support of the progressive base, as she did. There will be no Green Party candidate on the ballot. Combined with the realignment of the state’s suburbs and its elderly population, both of which have swung dramatically, Biden is in a strong position to overwhelm the upsurge in voter registration and excitement among white, working-class voters over the age of 30 without a college degree. Polls have begun to show clearly that if everybody who plans to vote is able to, Biden has the upper hand. But particularly in Pennsylvania, that’s far from guaranteed, and Republicans have been working overtime to make sure it’s not the case. That could turn Pennsylvania’s election into a street brawl, and it’s one that progressives worry the state party simply isn’t built for.
Democrats, said Jonathan Smucker, a co-founder of the group Pennsylvania Stands Up, are playing an asymmetrical game, taking a wait-and-see approach to the coming election chaos, while Republicans are mounting an all-out war to win Pennsylvania by any means necessary. “Pennsylvania is emerging as a place that could quite possibly become ground zero,” said Smucker, “what Florida was in 2000.” The state’s rickety, slick-palmed Democratic Party isn’t ready to handle what’s coming.
In the crucial Lehigh Valley, the Democratic Party functions in significant ways as an arm of the Republican Party, said Greg Edwards, an Allentown pastor who ran for Congress in 2018, losing in a primary to an establishment-backed opponent. “The Allentown Democratic Party and the Lehigh County Democratic Party are tied to the Republican Party not by name, but by political expedience and funding,” said Edwards, whose campaign was boosted by a 2018 rally in Allentown headlined by Sen. Bernie Sanders. “The Democratic Party in Lehigh County could give a shit about Democratic voters.”
Organizers in Pennsylvania say they’re operating with little help from the local Democrats or the Biden campaign. But a new constellation of grassroots progressive organizations is hoping to fill the gap left by the party. Realizing the feebleness of local Democrats, residents of Lancaster, the seat of the state’s Amish country, were among the millions of Americans who mobilized politically after Trump’s 2016 win. Smucker and a handful of others founded Lancaster Stands Up, which has since grown to nine chapters statewide, including Lehigh Valley Stands Up and an umbrella group called Pennsylvania Stands Up. The group recently teamed up with a nationwide effort to persuade former Sanders volunteers to not just vote for Biden, but to also get active for him.
“The descent into authoritarianism, or even the possibility of a shift into what could be described as fascism, is on the horizon, and we have to take that seriously,” Smucker said of the effort dubbed #NotHimUs. “We can’t leave this to the Democratic Party. We have to suck it up and do it ourselves.”