Democrats could be forgiven for experiencing some schadenfreude during Kevin McCarthy’s chaotic, protracted election as Speaker of the House, but in an essay from the January 19, 2023, issue of the Review, Alexander Burns argues that relying on Republican dysfunction is not a sound electoral strategy, especially when the structure of the Senate so strongly favors Republicans. “If the Senate makes American politics into something of a sucker’s game for the party of big cities and diverse suburbs, Democrats appear resigned to keep playing the game in much the same way, over and over again,” he writes. “As of yet, they have been unable to answer one of the greatest questions confronting them: How will the party win back the sections of the country that dominate the Senate?”
Burns, having come of age as a political reporter during the tumult of the Trump years, is well positioned to suggest new directions for the party. While working as a correspondent at The New York Times he coauthored his first book, This Will Not Pass, an account of the messy transition between the Trump and Biden presidencies. He is now associate editor for global politics at Politico. We corresponded over e-mail this week about McCarthy, Senator Joe Manchin, and reporting during a pandemic.
Willa Glickman: What led you to political reporting?
Alexander Burns: Somewhere in my parents’ house is a picture book I made about the 1992 election after I watched the presidential debates with them. I was six at the time. So maybe it was always going to end up this way, but I didn’t seriously consider political journalism as a career until almost the end of college. Even when I got my first job at Politico in 2008 as a researcher and assistant to the cofounders, I thought there was a pretty good chance that I’d try that for a while and then go to graduate school in history, or law school.
Things didn’t work out like that. Politico exploded in size and importance, and I fell in love with the work. I went to the Times in 2015, where I worked briefly on the Metro desk and then as a political correspondent covering the 2016 and 2020 elections. I thought there was a good chance I’d try covering a different area after 2016—like climate or legal affairs—or maybe even explore one of the other lines of work that interested me when I was in school. But when Donald Trump won, there was just no way I could responsibly walk away from reporting on that story.
Kevin McCarthy was a major character in your recent book, This Will Not Pass, and you and your coauthor, Jonathan Martin, tangled with him publicly when he denied he had made comments that you quoted. Can you share a bit of what you learned about him during your reporting? What should we expect from his speakership?
For starters, he is dishonest and not very skilled at being dishonest. When McCarthy denied our reporting—we wrote that he told associates after January 6 that he wanted to push Trump to resign—we exposed that as a lie in short order with audio recordings of his private conversations. One of the common reactions we heard from Republicans in Washington was not quite surprise that McCarthy would have lied, but rather surprise that he would have given such a categorical and false denial when there are plenty of ways to dissemble more subtly.
But McCarthy is not a subtle man. He is not a person motivated by big ideas. He is best understood as a political operative who is good at raising money and passionate about winning elections, and not really interested in affairs of state. He is seen, even by many of his Republican colleagues, as a likable, shallow person of grasping ambition and few fixed principles. And really, what other kind of person would be willing to trade away so much of the power of the speakership—to set policy and direct the House—in exchange for a hollow title? I expect governing to be extremely difficult for him.
Do you think there is anything that Republican leadership could have done to avoid the debacle of the speaker’s election?
By the time Republicans got to the point of actually voting for a speaker, they were probably doomed to an ugly spectacle of some kind. But there are choices they could have made differently over the last two years that might have changed the outcome. Republican leaders made a grievous moral and political mistake after the 2020 election—and especially after January 6—by deciding to avoid a reckoning with extremism in their party. They made no sustained effort to rethink the meaning of American conservatism in a way that might appeal to the political middle and cleanse the stain of the Trump presidency. They trusted that high inflation and Joe Biden’s low poll numbers would more or less win the next election for them. McCarthy was a leading proponent of this approach.
Had Republican leaders made a different set of choices over that period and offered voters in 2022 something meaningfully different from Trumpism, then perhaps they would have won a larger majority in which the far right had less power. Republican lawmakers might also be more united if they had campaigned on a coherent agenda that gave them a sense of common purpose.
What was an average day of reporting for This Will Not Pass like, during such a fraught time? Have there been any particularly surprising political developments since you completed the book?
I’m not sure I could characterize an average day. This was my first book, and it happened to coincide with a pandemic, an insurrection, and (much more happily!) the birth of my daughter in early 2021. I hope to write many more books, but I’ll never do another one as a new parent. The pandemic made the reporting process more challenging, both because it was harder to reach people but also because certain kinds of events that are staples of political reporting were all but shut down. There were not so many fateful meetings in smoke-filled rooms during that time.
We completed the book in February 2022, which was close to a low point for the Biden presidency. At the time it seemed like Joe Manchin had firmly shut the door on any additional large-scale domestic spending legislation. When we finished, it did not seem like Biden or Chuck Schumer or anyone else had a plan for changing Manchin’s mind. I wouldn’t say I was shocked that Manchin ultimately agreed to pass something, because he is a malleable and unpredictable man. But the speed with which he changed his mind and helped pass the most important climate legislation in history made for one of the most dramatic reversals I’ve seen as a political reporter.
In your article for the Review, you argue that one of the best ways for Democrats to make headway with the white, rural constituencies that give Republicans such an upper hand in the Senate is to address fears about the loss of good middle-class jobs and pursue a policy of “economic nationalism.” Would greater protections for labor help in this effort?
I don’t think you can have a coherent economic message as a left-of-center party unless you address workers’ rights and protections in a serious way. Some of that can be called economic nationalism. Working-class voters are right to believe that their employment opportunities have suffered from competition with workers in foreign countries, where labor is paid far less and treated far worse. And some Democrats have spent too much time patiently explaining to those voters why the global economy actually helps them, rather than addressing their most immediate frustrations in an appropriately urgent way.
There are other issues related to labor protections and workers’ rights that are not necessarily nationalist that Democrats need to address as a matter of basic political integrity for a progressive party. When I say that Democrats would be smart to wrest the theme of economic nationalism away from the GOP, I don’t mean to suggest they need to discard the rest of their economic values in the process.
You argue that abolishing the Senate and other such direct reforms are highly unlikely to occur, but that since the party is at such a structural disadvantage, “Democrats might eventually take a lesson from Trump and crusade against the legitimacy of the system itself.” Could you say a bit more about what that would entail?
Anyone who wants to take Trump as a model doesn’t need to have a specific remedy in mind. If you think the political system is biased against you, then weakening the popular legitimacy of that system is something of an end unto itself. I don’t think Trump set out to convince his political base that the 2020 election was stolen so that he could usher in a new wave of voting restrictions at the state level, but that outcome was a direct policy consequence of his claims. His grievances were bogus, of course. But there really are profound structural problems with American democracy, and two of the worst—the composition of the Senate and the Electoral College—mainly serve to disempower the Democratic Party and its voters. You would never know that from the reverential way most Democratic leaders talk about the country’s constitutional structure. Or at least the way they talk about it in public.
Setting aside what would be helpful for Democrats and just considering what makes sense for the country, it seems inarguable to me that we have a needlessly elaborate political system that resists change. Our dense structure of checks and balances makes it incredibly difficult for either political party to pass federal legislation that fulfills the promises made to voters during an election. It would be good for voters’ confidence in democracy if there were a clearer connection between what people vote for in an election and what a governing party is able to do once it wins power.
You’ve recently become an editor of global politics at Politico—have you enjoyed taking a step away from strictly American politics?
Yes. It has been a terrific new challenge. So much of contemporary politics is driven by trends that cut across national lines, and covering those dynamics in the United States only takes you so far. It is limiting to write about the polarization of politics along lines of social class and educational attainment, for instance, or the widening divide between urban and rural communities, as though those are challenges mainly for the two American political parties. They are problems for democratic systems everywhere. The most urgent policy challenges of our time—climate change above all—are not distinctively American. Gun violence is a grim exception.