This Week in the Mayonnaise Clinic: Almost All Your Questions Are About Chuck Schumer
I feel your pain.
God, you people have a lot of questions about Chuck Schumer (whose inept leadership I vented my spleen about behind paywall on Monday). Here’s a sampling.
As a Dem-voting suburban Wisconsin resident who is surrounded by conservatives — most of them are very nice people — the necessity of Democrats freeing themselves from the fear of activist groups is obvious to me. My question is, why is it not obvious to Chuck Schumer and other elected Dems? Do they know something that we don't? The human psyche is complicated, and I refuse to believe that all these elected Dems just love the activist groups so much and think they are fun at parties. There must be something more going on.
Is Chuck Schumer the worst Senate majority leader of all time?
If Democrats lose the Senate, do you think they will vote out Chuck Schumer as leader?
Given your feelings about Chuck Schumer and how he does his job, if you could pick the next leader for Democrats in the Senate, who would it be? My personal choice is Brian Schatz: young, progressive, has a safe seat, and seems pragmatic about what we can/can’t/should do in the Senate.
So, let me take the last of these questions first. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, both highly effective Senate leaders, have (or in Reid’s case, had) fairly unappealing public images. Being a good leader is hard and takes a number of different skills: You need to broker compromises among your caucus, you need a strong political sense of which moves will help your side win elections across many states, and you need to raise a lot of money. But you also need to be willing to fall on your sword. You have to make decisions that advance your party’s interests even if they are inconvenient for you.
And that last part is where Schumer has appallingly fallen down on the job: He has prioritized insulating himself from a progressive primary challenge (which he would have been able to defeat anyway had he faced one), and getting warm fuzzies from professional activists over helping Democrats enact the parts of their agenda that could actually become law. The next leader should be someone who wouldn’t prioritize so incorrectly.
Now, I’m not sure who the right person for that is, but my main thought is it should be someone less interested in the spotlight than Schumer. They used to say the most dangerous place in Washington was between Schumer and a TV camera. Of course, being the leader of a caucus is inherently a very public job, and almost everyone who succeeds at this level of politics is a pathological extrovert, so I don’t mean the leader should be shy and receding. But it should be someone who is, like, down a couple of notches from Chuck, and more likely to let it slide off his or her back when one constituency or another gets mad.
To be clear, I don’t hate the entire establishment leadership of the party, and I’m not especially concerned about whether the leader can personally project a moderate image. I’m also not especially concerned about leadership being too old. In fact, I think Nancy Pelosi has mostly done a good job, even when playing a weak hand: she herds cats, she lets people get mad at her, she finally managed to roll the Progressive Caucus and get the infrastructure bill to the floor and passed. Like Mitch McConnell, she doesn’t seem bothered about being a hate figure for people in a variety of places on the political spectrum. She doesn’t lose her shit when she draws a progressive primary challenger, even as she faces a primary electorate that’s far more left-wing than Schumer’s; she just beats the challenger. She also raises a ton of money.
She’s not perfect — some of the same problems with Democrats taking the wrong messaging votes in the Senate also apply in the House — but she’s a lot better than he is, and Senate Democrats need someone more like her. That person could be older or younger, more progressive or more moderate, male or female, from a swing state or a blue one. It just needs to be someone with savvy political judgment who stays focused on the overall party’s political interests, even when the activist groups are pushing the wrong way.
Who exactly that Pelosi-like figure could be is a matter I’d defer to Senate Democrats on. They understand their co-workers better than I do. And since they’re among the people most negatively impacted by the bizarre leadership choices Schumer has made, they have a strong incentive to get this right next time.
Bill Carpenter has a question about Substack, and what he should pay for:
I enjoyed your podcast with Peter Suderman, and was mildly curious about his take on the aviation cocktail, so followed your link. But his Substack post is for subscribers only, and I’m not that interested. That reinforced a question that’s been bothering me as increasingly my favorite writers and podcasters take up residence on Substack or Patreon. It used to be that subscribing to a national newspaper (The New York Times) and donating to public radio could get me access to a wide variety of commentators and shows for a reasonable cost, even the ones I had only an occasional interest in. Now that content is behind individual Substack paywalls, what is a casually heterodox content consumer to do?
Here are some options:
Subscribe to the channels that give the best value. I certainly don’t begrudge my Very Serious subscription — the variety of content you provide is outstanding.
Subscribe to the marginal channels, as they need the most support. That’s one of the reasons I subscribe to The Bruenigs. Plus they are hilarious.
Subscribe to people whose free Twitter content I value. Like Alice From Queens, although her Substack is on hiatus right now.
Maintain a rotating stable of 4-5 channels so everyone gets their turn. But I would hate to pull the plug on Very Serious when your time is up!
First of all, Bill, thank you for being a paying subscriber and for writing in — your support makes this newsletter possible, and you gave me the opportunity to text Liz Bruenig about the fact that you called her “marginal,” to which she had the perfectly profane response.1
Your question dances around a desire I hear a lot of people express: That Substack subscriptions should be bundled, with readers paying a single fee to get many newsletters — some they care a lot about and others they have only marginal interest in — in much the same way that publications like The New York Times are themselves bundles.
And I have some inherent sympathy for this view: Back in 2014, when I was at The New York Times, I wrote a defense of the bundling of cable channels into packages as a pro-consumer practice, at a time when it was fashionable to ask for cable to be unbundled so people could pay for only the channels they care about. The shift to streaming has produced a form of that unbundling, and now a lot of consumers understand why they should have been careful what they wished for — unbundling pushes up the effective cost per channel, because content producers will price for the biggest fans of each stream, not for the broad public.
That said, I think newsletter bundling is mostly not going to be in the cards, because assembling the bundles and paying out the subscription proceeds in a manner that’s acceptable to the writers is likely to be impossible, and I also think it would likely lead to lower total revenue.
If you think about a cable package, bundling is achieved through a complex set of negotiations between the owners of cable and satellite systems and the owners of cable channels. The channel owners receive a monthly fee (a “carriage fee”) for the right to provide the channel to a customer, with the highest fees going to the most-desired channels, like CNN and ESPN. Cable and satellite companies then assemble those channels into packages and compete with each other to sell them at a bundled monthly price. All of that negotiating and pricing is a lot of work — but the cable systems and the content companies are big entities with highly paid executives and lawyers who spend a lot of time hashing out what prices are acceptable to whom.
Now imagine we try to form a bundle of Substack writers — you combine me with some people who are more famous than I and others who are less famous, and we all have to get together and agree on who is worth what. In theory, Substack could play the role that the cable system does, setting payment rates for each writer and pricing an overall bundle to sell to readers. But that’s basically becoming a magazine, and I don’t think the folks at Substack want to be in that business or see it as a core competency. And if we’re on our own trying to form the bundle under our own auspices, how do we come to terms that are acceptable to all the writers? What do we do if someone starts writing less prolifically, or becomes boring, or gets canceled (in the way that’s bad for business?) What happens when someone leaves the bundle — can he or she take readers along? Who owns the subscriber list? Basically, the whole thing is very messy and complicated, it would be very hard to make everyone happy, and we’d be spending a lot of time and energy on business terms instead of writing.
I think this is the reason that the bundle-like Substacks you see emerging are like Bari Weiss’s — with one prominent personality who owns the newsletter and hires other writers, rather than formed as a partnership among a variety of egotistical writers who each have their own fan base and didn’t really set out to be small businesspeople.
It might be worth dealing with all this trouble if bundling could make us a lot more money. But that’s the other problem here: I am very skeptical that a bundle can produce more revenue than individual subscriptions for newsletters, even if it does do that in the cable television space. Here’s why.
The theory of the bundle is that there are a lot of readers who aren’t willing to pay $6 per month to read me, but who would be willing to pay for a larger subscription bundle of whose price I would get, say, $0.75. And at least in my case, I don’t think that math pencils.
I don’t know exactly who would be enticed into a bundle because of my presence in it, but Sara and I do have one bit of clear market research: We know that 24% of the people who receive this newsletter at all are currently paying $6 per month or $60 per year to get past the paywall. That suggests the market of people who are interested in receiving a subset of my newsletters at a price of $0 per month is only about four times larger than the subset who have shown the willingness to pay $6 (or $60 per year). Some of them won’t be willing to go up to $0.75. And if I joined a bundle, we wouldn’t be getting $6 from the existing readers anymore — we’d be getting $0.75. All of which is to say, if you throw this newsletter into a bundle, I’m pretty confident it will generate less revenue than it does as a standalone product.
And this is the rub for readers: Like in many industries, heavy newsletter users are a small fraction of the customer base but a large fraction of the revenue generation. Most people who go to Las Vegas aren’t willing to lose $5,000 at blackjack, but some people are, and they’re essential to the business model. Similarly, most people won’t pay for 12 different Substack newsletters — but some of you will, and we writers appreciate you in the way a casino appreciates a gambling addict. (Sara here. I just want to say that we think very highly of you, we greatly appreciate your business, and I don’t judge any habits you may or may not have.) These heavy users are of course the readers who are most interested in bundling, because it would save them personally a lot of money. But — you see where this is going, right? That a bundle would save you money and cost us money are just two sides of the same coin.
In any case, thank you for your patronage, and whatever route you take I encourage you to continue paying for Very Serious.
All that said, this is new territory, for both us and for you. We think about pricing and value for money a lot, especially as we consider offerings like new podcasts and premium audio content, always with an eye toward adding value to your existing subscriptions and converting more free subscribers to paid. So we’d be interested to know about what any of you would like to see.
Peter has a question about cooking:
I’m curious about your opinion (and I’m confident you have one) on Instant Pots. I have never put ingredients into mine and had it come out less than delicious, so much so that it sometimes feels like cheating. But having a delicious meal is the point, so I’m all for it.