On "Morning Joe," you said your new PAC "is about bringing a brand offensive against the whole Republican Party. It's not just about Donald Trump, but it definitely includes him." Three things struck me about that. First, that seemed to be exemplified by your ad, "Fuse." Tell me about that one. Why is it shaped the way it is, and why now?
All four of our launch-packet ads are targeted toward different aspects of this branding offensive. "Fuse" is geared towards a national audience. In political advertising, the conventional two types are what we call "persuasion" — which is trying to get voters who don't have a firm vote to come over and vote for you — and the other type is "mobilization," making sure your core voters will show up.
What Strike PAC is doing is not within those two buckets. It certainly has overlap — it's performing both persuasion and mobilization. But what it's arguing is, "Look, the GOP doesn't really run anything except a marketing/branding op and it's predominantly a branding offensive against the left." They don't spend a lot of time on their own brand, but they do spend a lot of time in their messaging on discounting, discrediting and debasing our brand. That will go from everything from economics to the "woke" war, so it's always about showing us as unattractively to voters as possible. We've never answered that.
Democrats, up until now, have been told by their consultants, "Don't worry about it," or "Don't push back on 'socialism' or 'defund the police.'" To their credit, candidates are starting to understand when somebody is lobbing missiles at you, you can't just stand there and pretend it's not hitting. They are starting to try to put forward a response. But the it's a defensive mechanism, it's not offensive. The GOP is saying, "We're going to have a debate about these topics," and when you enter into that field, you are basically on the defense the whole time because you're having a conversation that's been structured by the opposition party.
So that's what "Fuse" is trying to change?
It's flipping that GOP tactic over to our side. It's attacking the Republicans to make a conversation about their anti-democratic power grab, that goes back from contesting the results of 2020, an armed insurrection, Trump actually trying to use the Justice Department to stage a coup, and the Republican Party's wholesale embrace of that.
It's not like Trump did these things and the Republican Party stood against him. They have slowly but surely normalized this anti-democratic behavior. In fact, they have doubled down on it by going into these state legislative sessions trying to restrict voter access for progressive parts of the electorate, even going so far as to put provisions that take the certification process away from nonpartisan actors and into their partisan hands.
That conversation is something you might see if you're me or you, if you're very political, but for the broader electorate it's happening completely invisibly. There's very little media coverage — certainly not saturation coverage like you would see for Clinton's emails — about this power grab, what that means for democracy and what it means for Democrats in the next cycle.
So "Fuse" is about fixing that problem, putting the stakes of 2022 in clear-eyed focus for the other half of the electorate. Because the Republican electorate has been told now for a while that the other side is coming after democracy, right? So it's their belief in a Democratic Party that has been articulated by the GOP. It's completely out of whack of reality, but Republican voters believe that Democrats are trying to "destroy democracy," and what they're doing is saving it. It's not like they don't have a motivation. So we really need this side of the electorate to realize that this meta-conversation about American democracy is on the ballot in 2022.
To me, "bringing a brand offensive" pretty much describes how Republicans have run the vast majority of their national campaigns at least since Ronald Reagan, if not Richard Nixon. Democrats have virtually never done so—not even when Trump first ran in 2016. Why do you think that is?
That's exactly right. You could believe it's a problem that began when polarization really began to take off in the mid-2000s when asymmetry appears, and to some extent that's true, because Republicans developed this technique of making every election a referendum on the Democratic brand. But you're right, it does have its roots back in the 80s.
That said, we really do see a distinct version of the modern GOP that has its origins in that 2004 Bush re-election campaign with Karl Rove, to use the gay marriage issues to turn out on their side, but also to talk about politics — including Senate and House races that might have otherwise been more local — with the intention of making them about the national party, about the national political climate and the national brand. That really starts to solidify with the 2010 midterms. They made it a referendum on Obamacare and Nancy Pelosi, and tied every candidate to that as tightly as they could. So every candidate really didn't stand for re-election on their own performance in office or voting record, things that people think traditionally mattered. Instead, it was all about whether they were a Democrat.
We never made that adjustment at all. In fact, it seems like we don't even really recognize how distinctly different voter behavior in the two coalitions are and how hyper-partisanship has changed things. Whether or not we want that change, it's there, right? We've been grasping for this old-school model of electioneering, it's like when Sega was replaced by Nintendo.
The GOP is running this very strategic, very intentional branding campaign, and we're still talking about politics in terms of policies and things like that. We're arguing that we are making a huge mistake when we're tinkering around in the branches of electioneering infrastructure on the left, because our real problem lies at that root level, where we are not engaged in a campaign technique that matches the moment.
Sunday, June 27, 2021
Donald Trump is a man consumed with grievance against people he believes have betrayed him, but few betrayals have enraged him more than what his attorney general did to him. To Trump, the unkindest cut of all was when William Barr stepped forward and declared that there had been no widespread fraud in the 2020 election, just as the president was trying to overturn Joe Biden’s victory by claiming that the election had been stolen.
In a series of interviews with me this spring, Barr spoke, for the first time, about the events surrounding his break with Trump. I have also spoken with other senior officials in the Trump White House and Justice Department, who provided additional details about Barr’s actions and the former president’s explosive response. Barr and those close to him have a reason to tell his version of this story. He has been widely seen as a Trump lackey who politicized the Justice Department. But when the big moment came after the election, he defied the president who expected him to do his bidding.
Barr’s betrayal came on December 1, over lunch in the attorney general’s private dining room with Michael Balsamo, a Justice Department beat reporter at the Associated Press. Also in attendance were the DOJ chief of staff, Will Levi, and spokesperson Kerri Kupec. Balsamo was not told the reason for the invitation. When Barr dropped his bombshell between bites of salad, he mumbled, and Balsamo wasn’t sure that he had caught what the attorney general had said.
“Just to be crystal clear,” Balsamo asked, “are you saying—”
“Sir, I think you better repeat what you just said,” Kupec interjected.
“To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” Barr repeated. This time Balsamo heard him.
Balsamo’s story appeared on the AP newswire shortly after lunch ended: “Disputing Donald Trump’s persistent baseless claims, Attorney General William Barr declared Tuesday the U.S. Justice Department had uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could change the outcome of the 2020 election.”
The story blew a hole in the president’s claims. Nobody seriously questioned Barr’s conservative credentials or whether he had been among Trump’s most loyal cabinet secretaries. His conclusion sent a definitive message that the effort to overturn the election was without merit.
Barr told me that Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell had been urging him to speak out since mid-November. Publicly, McConnell had said nothing to criticize Trump’s allegations, but he told Barr that Trump’s claims were damaging to the country and to the Republican Party. Trump’s refusal to concede was complicating McConnell’s efforts to ensure that the GOP won the two runoff elections in Georgia scheduled for January 5.
To McConnell, the road to maintaining control of the Senate was simple: Republicans needed to make the argument that with Biden soon to be in the White House, it was crucial that they have a majority in the Senate to check his power. But McConnell also believed that if he openly declared Biden the winner, Trump would be enraged and likely act to sabotage the Republican Senate campaigns in Georgia. Barr related his conversations with McConnell to me. McConnell confirms the account.
“Look, we need the president in Georgia,” McConnell told Barr, “and so we cannot be frontally attacking him right now. But you’re in a better position to inject some reality into this situation. You are really the only one who can do it.”
“I understand that,” Barr said. “And I’m going to do it at the appropriate time.”
On another call, McConnell again pleaded with Barr to come out and shoot down the talk of widespread fraud.
“Bill, I look around, and you are the only person who can do it,” McConnell told him.
Levi, the Justice Department chief of staff, had also been urging Barr to contradict Trump’s assertions. But Barr had said nothing publicly to indicate that he disagreed with the president about the election. In fact, the week after the election, he gave prosecutors the green light to investigate “substantial allegations” of vote irregularities that “could potentially impact the outcome” of the election. The move overturned long-standing policy that the Justice Department does not investigate voter fraud until after an election is certified. The theory behind the policy is that the department’s responsibility is to prosecute crimes, not to get involved in election disputes. Barr’s reversal of the policy was interpreted by some as a sign that he might use the department to help Trump overturn the election.
But Barr told me he had already concluded that it was highly unlikely that evidence existed that would tip the scales in the election. He had expected Trump to lose and therefore was not surprised by the outcome. He also knew that at some point, Trump was going to confront him about the allegations, and he wanted to be able to say that he had looked into them and that they were unfounded. So, in addition to giving prosecutors approval to open investigations into clear and credible allegations of substantial fraud, Barr began his own, unofficial inquiry into the major claims that the president and his allies were making.
“My attitude was: It was put-up or shut-up time,” Barr told me. “If there was evidence of fraud, I had no motive to suppress it. But my suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there. It was all bullshit.”
The Department of Justice ended up conducting no formal investigations of voter fraud, but as part of Barr’s informal review, he asked the U.S. Attorney in Michigan about Trump’s claim that mysterious “ballot dumps” in Detroit had secured Biden’s victory in the state.
As proof of fraud, Trump’s allies had pointed to videos showing boxes filled with ballots arriving at the TCF Center, in Detroit, to be counted after the 8 p.m. deadline for votes to be cast. But Barr quickly found that there was a logical explanation. It had to do with how the 662 precincts in Wayne County, home to Detroit, tabulate their votes. “In every other county, they count the ballots at the precinct, but in Wayne County, they bring them into one central counting place. So the boxes are coming in all night. The fact that boxes are coming in—well, that’s what they do.”
Furthermore, Trump performed better against Biden in Detroit than he had against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Biden received 1,000 fewer votes in Detroit than Clinton had, and Trump received 5,000 more votes than he had four years earlier. Trump didn’t lose Michigan because of “illegal” ballots cast in Detroit. He lost Michigan because Biden beat him badly in the suburbs.
Barr also looked into allegations that voting machines across the country were rigged to switch Trump votes to Biden votes. He received two briefings from cybersecurity experts at the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. “We realized from the beginning it was just bullshit,” Barr told me, noting that even if the machines somehow changed the count, it would show up when they were recounted by hand. “It’s a counting machine, and they save everything that was counted. So you just reconcile the two. There had been no discrepancy reported anywhere, and I’m still not aware of any discrepancy.”
Our Sunday Long Read comes to us this week from The Score, where Travis Sawchuk and Ray Danner go on a road trip to cover the Depression-era route of Negro League teams, searching for the lost history of the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the box scores of that era.
We traveled east along Lake Erie, on a search for hidden gems. Negro League players followed this same route in the 1930s and 1940s, moving along U.S. Route 20 in buses and caravans of cars until gasoline and rubber rations often forced them onto trains during World War II. The Pittsburgh Crawfords had what was considered at the time to be a luxurious Mack bus. We zipped along I-90 in my old Honda Accord. My friend Ray Danner and I were retracing a small part of their path, searching for their lost history.
Ray waited months for the public library in Erie, Pennsylvania, to reopen when pandemic restrictions eased so he could access its newspaper archive. I was curious about his quest, so I asked to come along on the trip from Cleveland.
Months earlier, Ray listened to Rob Neyer interview Scott Simkus, an author and researcher for Seamheads.com, a site where a small group of hobbyists came together to try to pull off the impossible: find every existing Negro League box score from the top leagues. The result of their work means there are no longer thousands of missing box scores, but hundreds.
On the podcast, Simkus told Neyer they were certain there were missing games in places like Memphis; Zanesville, Ohio; and Erie. The missing puzzle pieces are mostly, now, in towns and cities where Negro League teams played during their lengthy tours. Seamheads was looking for volunteers willing to visit the libraries in these places and search the newspaper archives.
Erie? That's not too far away, Ray thought. He reached out to Simkus.
Ray, a history buff and member of the Society for American Baseball Research, knew Major League Baseball had elevated the best Negro Leagues to major-league status in December. Any box score Ray could unearth would eventually be included in official MLB statistics.
His work would help fill out the historical record at Baseball Reference, the preeminent statistical database, and one of his favorite online research tools. On Tuesday, Baseball Reference unveiled its new Negro League data with major-league status, data it licensed from Seamheads.
This was Ray's second trip to Erie. He recovered four box scores on his first trip and knew there were more to be found. Research like this can be tedious and underappreciated. What was the payoff?
"I like history, so it starts there," he said. "There is just an appeal to things that are forgotten or almost forgotten, and bringing them back to life."
Erie's library is right on the waterfront, not far from where Oliver Hazard Perry built his fleet that defeated the British on the lake in 1813. Ray, who works in the Cleveland aquarium's shark tank, has scuba dived to examine shipwrecks in the lake.
In the library's second-floor Heritage Room, which features paintings of Civil War battles, cabinets of microfilm, and shelves of obscure books, we scanned through the Erie Times-News archive at side-by-side terminals. The resource had been digitized but wasn't accessible outside of this room. Ray had a good idea of where to begin. About a half hour in, he turned to me.
"Oh, look at this," Ray exclaimed. "This is beautiful."