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Columns Tom Baxter

Summer’s political arc, from breakfast tacos to crudité

By Tom Baxter

Looking back, the tipoff story of this summer was — go figure — the one about Jill Biden and breakfast tacos.

Jill Biden spoke to a national Latino group in San Antonio in July and praised the community’s diversity — “as distinct as the bodegas of the Bronx, as beautiful as the blossoms of Miami and as unique as the breakfast tacos here in San Antonio.”

Teapots quickly hit the tempest level. A Latino journalists’ organization condemned Biden’s statement as insensitive and the First Lady’s office issued an apology, although the purveyors of breakfast tacos in San Antonio seemed fine with her remark.

At another moment, this might have been an item in a news cycle or two, or it might not have been a national story at all. But it was mid-July and that catchy image of breakfast tacos paired well with reports of Democrats’ fading popularity in polls of Latino voters. So the flub lingered for days longer than it should have, growing in putative significance like mushrooms in the summer grass. Biden’s clumsy comment “couldn’t have come at a worse time for Democrats,” according to one analyst.

That was the tipoff. Whether its bent is toward the left or right, the overarching bias of all media is to crowd the storyline, to re-certify the prevailing narrative until a new one emerges. That’s what people find both affirming and irritating about the news they watch on TV.

When a story becomes this ridiculously overinflated, it’s often a sign the storyline is about to change direction. Since the taco story — if we can even call it a story — there has been a distinct change in the coverage of the Biden administration and the Democrats. The surprising abortion referendum vote in Kansas, the jobs numbers and the decline in gas prices, and most importantly, the congressional breakthrough which led to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, have all factored into this change.

But just as the taco story contributed to the impression that things were worse for the Democrats than they really were, the current piling-on over Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and his awkward “crudité” video might be a signal the storyline bias has swung in the opposite direction. The NBC poll out this week indicates little change in the balance between the two parties since summer began, with widespread skepticism about the big bill, passed this month. The election is still a jump ball, with neither party in a secure position.

The Democrats are spending heavily on ads to sell the Inflation Reduction Act, but there’s a basic messaging problem. The one thing this multi-part legislation seems least likely to do is reduce inflation. The parts that deal with controlling prescription drug costs and energy credits should win the Democrats more votes in the coming months, but they have an uphill selling job. Their chances of holding on to the Senate have improved, as Sen. Mitch McConnell acknowledged this week, but the House will be much harder.

For Republicans, the worst news has come not so much from the polls as the financial reports, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s cancellation of $10 million in ads in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona. The Senate election committee has defended its action, saying the move was only part of its large spending plan.

But these latest indications of financial problems in the NRSC have put its chairman, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, on the hot seat. In a year when Republicans have a lot of electoral advantages, the Republican fundraising apparatus, so dependent on donors now being slammed as RINOs by the party’s conservative insurgents, appears to have been displaced by Donald Trump’s fundraising juggernaut.

Neither race has figured much in the calculations of who will control the Senate, but the contests in neighboring Florida and North Carolina are worth keeping an eye on as the midterm races head into the fall. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio trailed Democrat Val Demings — who some wish had been Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick — in a recent poll by four points. That could be an outlier, but this is expected to be a close race.

In North Carolina, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley is opposing state Rep. Ted Budd, who’s been endorsed by Trump. This race also looks close, both in terms of polling and fundraising.

 

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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