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Abandon ship: Safe-seat Democrat Jackie Speier throws in the towel, won't run again in 2022

Speier is young by congressional standards (71) and represents an indigo-blue D+28 district. She could have held her seat for as long as she liked.

But she knows which way the wind is blowing electorally. Being in the House minority, especially a smallish House minority, is no fun. She has better things to do with her golden years than waste away in a post-Pelosi Democratic rump caucus.

A fascinating fact about her to which she alludes at the start of this clip: She was on the ground in Jonestown in 1978 with her then-boss, Rep. Leo Ryan, when Jim Jones decided he couldn’t let them leave. Both were shot. Speier somehow made it out alive. Ryan did not.

The top three in the House Democratic caucus are 81, 82, and 81 years old, respectively. Will any of them be back to lead the minority in 2023 or will the coming wave of Dem retirements claim the entire leadership? I know how I’d bet.

There’s good news and bad news for Dems today with respect to the issue that poses the most dire risk to their congressional majorities. The good news, per Goldman Sachs, is inflation should be in decline by next fall, in time for Election Day. The bad news is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better:

Goldman also sees job growth picking up next year, with the unemployment rate falling from 4.6 percent now to a projected 3.7 percent next summer. If that bears out and if Biden can somehow rebuild a perception of competence among voters who’ve turned on him, Dems might avoid a red tsunami next fall after all. But there’s probably no avoiding a red wave; figure that 25 seats are destined to flip even if things improve for Biden while many, many more are in danger if they don’t. Either way, Speier knows from personal experience how long it can take to regain control of the House. She came to Congress in 2008, spent three years in the majority, then had to wait eight years before landing in a new majority. If that happens again, she’d be 80 by the time her vote meant something again.

Dozens of other House Dems are doing similar math right now and wondering whether to pull the rip cord. As much as they’d like to wait until next summer to see if Goldman’s projections come true, the primary schedule won’t accommodate them.

And if Goldman’s wrong and inflation proves more durable, there isn’t much the leader of their party can do to help them. Jeff Greenfield has a nice history today of the many different strategies used by other post-war presidents to try to hold down inflation, with limited success in every case. JFK and LBJ took to “jawboning” U.S. businesses and unions, pressuring them informally to limit costs and wages, but that’s much harder to do in the fully globalized economy of 2021. Nixon instituted price controls for 90 days, which worked briefly — and then produced 11 percent inflation once they lapsed. Gerald Ford chose to, uh … I’ll let Greenfield tell it:

On Oct. 8, 1974, the president addressed a Joint Session of Congress and reported: “There is only one point on which all advisers have agreed: We must whip inflation right now.”…

He also asked Americans to send him 10 energy-saving ideas, and finally, he displayed “the symbol of this new mobilization, which I am wearing on my lapel. It bears the single word WIN. I think that tells it all. I will call upon every American to join in this massive mobilization and stick with it until we do win as a nation and as a people.”

The red and white “WIN” button instead became a different kind of symbol. Alan Greenspan, then-Ford’s Council of Economic Advisors chair, later recalled thinking that the campaign was “unbelievably stupid.” New York Magazine, in a column ridiculing Ford, showed a clown with a “WIN” button.

The president who actually did Whip Inflation Now was Jimmy Carter, at a frighteningly steep cost. His Fed chairman, Paul Volcker, threw the inflationary economy into reverse by tightening the money supply. The result was massive interest rates, recession and stagflation, and ultimately 12 years of Republicans in the White House.

Not many good options for Sleepy Joe. To the extent that his vaccine mandate reduces COVID transmission and leads people back to work, that might be the most he can do to normalize the supply chain and stabilize the economy. In the meantime, he’s going to spend the next several weeks selling the roads-and-bridges infrastructure bill he just signed into law. He can’t lower prices overnight but he can at least prime voters to believe he’s done some good on other fronts, which might matter to them once prices begin dropping again. Eventually.

By the way, Speier is the 15th Democrat to retire this cycle versus just 10 Republicans. At this stage two years ago, 20 Republicans had announced their retirements versus just eight Dems.