The idea of “local political leaders” should be participating

October 25, 2022, Heather Cox Richardson, (

There are quotes, and then there are quotes.

Tonight, in the debate between Democratic candidate John Fetterman and Republican candidate Mehmet Oz as part of their campaigns to replace Republican Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey, who is retiring, Oz said he wanted abortion decisions to be made by “women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so that states can decide for themselves.”

His answer seems likely to have been carefully crafted to lead with women and doctors—a signal to pro-choice constituencies—before pivoting to the state’s rights argument at the heart of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. He might have hoped that both sides would hear what they wanted to in his answer.

But hoo, boy, was that sentence a mistake. The idea that “local political leaders” should be participating in decisions about a woman’s most fundamental health care is not going to play well with … well, virtually anyone.

Pennsylvania is a crucial state for Republican hopes to take control of the Senate. Groups linked to the Republican Senate Leadership Fund political action committee just slashed their New Hampshire advertising to pour another $6 million into the Pennsylvania Senate race to help Oz. That quotation about local political leaders is going to hurt their efforts.

There is very little else of great consequence that must be dealt with tonight, but here are two general observations:

First of all, Kurt Bardella hit the nail on the head today when he wrote in the Los Angeles Times that no one really has any idea what is going to happen on Election Day, “especially the pollsters who routinely get things wrong.” Those telling us the outcome is clear are doing us a disservice. Bardella reminded readers of the 2020 headline from Vanderbilt University: “Preelection polls in 2020 had the largest errors in 40 years.”

Second, there has been much public discussion today of the idea that Democrats are in disarray after yesterday’s letter from the Progressive Democratic Caucus asking President Joe Biden to consider negotiations with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

This seems to me an odd interpretation of this political moment. The Democrats have just finished an 18-month stint in which, with squeaky thin majorities, they have managed to hammer together coalitions that have passed an astonishing number of major pieces of legislation. The letter was too clever by half, it seemed to me, in what looked like an attempt to reach out to those constituencies concerned about the financial costs of supporting Ukraine. It fueled the narrative of those Republicans eager to defund Ukraine, and walking it back today looked weak, even though their statements enabled the signatories to reiterate their support for the party and for democracy.

Meanwhile, few pundits are talking about the extraordinary disarray among the Republicans, who could not even agree on a program to put before the voters this year, and who have swung back and forth on the major questions of abortion and whether they believe the 2020 election was legitimate.

The splits between establishment Republicans and MAGA Republicans are so deep that the Alaska Republican Party voted yesterday to censure Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). McConnell’s super PAC has spent more than $5 million on ads attacking the Trump-backed Republican in Alaska’s Senate race. The attacks are designed to help Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski, who won Trump’s hatred by voting to convict him of inciting the January 6 insurrection.

The Trump-backed candidate said “the Alaska Republican party has just told [McConnell]” — who is a leader of the national party, after all — “to butt out of our state.”

This strikes me as a disarray deeper than that shown by a misguided and quickly recalled letter, especially since this latest split in the Republican Party comes on top of the loss of supporters ever since the party turned to Trump as a leader. And before that, of course, beginning in the 1990s, the party purged anyone the right-wing thought was insufficiently committed to tax cuts, calling them “RINOs” for “Republicans In Name Only.”

Indeed, if the Republicans today look like they’re in lockstep, that seems less like legislative discipline than like the takeover of a broad-tent party by radicals and incendiaries whose interest in actually governing appears to be limited. When he was elected to the Senate in 2020, Republican Tommy Tuberville of Alabama revealed that he did not know the three branches of the U.S. government.

Since the ideology of the modern party was, until recently, to gut the federal government, there was no need to argue about how to do anything: Republican lawmakers simply had to stop Democrats from legislating. In the same interview in which he mischaracterized the structure of the government, Senator-elect Tuberville told Todd Stacy of the Alabama Daily News that, once in office, he would focus on learning “[t]he filibuster rules and stuff like that of how you can really slow the progress of something that you don’t like.”

But just saying no is not, ultimately, a governing strategy for the twenty-first century. The Republican Party’s diminished base has now shifted toward backing a strong government that will impose its will on the rest of us, while for all their disagreements—or perhaps because of them—Democrats have demonstrated that lawmakers across a wide spectrum of political beliefs really can work together to pass popular legislation.

Which vision will prevail in the U.S. will play out over the next two years.