Friday’s job numbers and dip in unemployment to 4.6 percent might have made it easier for Democrats running in Tuesday’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey. So, too, might earlier passage of the infrastructure bill and tentative agreement on a framework for the reconciliation package. Even with belated progress, no one should conclude there are not serious threats to the Democrats in Tuesday’s results and lessons to be learned from them.
While it’s difficult to dispute the importance of most of the progressives’ aspirational goals, it’s naïve and political malpractice to think the 2020 American electorate, which gave Democrats the barest of majorities in Congress, actually endorsed an FDR-like transformational mandate or anything but Biden’s not being or governing like Donald Trump.
Progressive Democrats have blocked legislative progress because their priorities are being cut from Biden’s reconciliation bill. Moderates, equally obstructionist, focus on the price tag, signaling to their voters we need to hit the brakes on spending. Compromise – getting things done – should be the goal. Biden knows this. Failure to do so reeks of incompetence that soils all in the allegedly governing majority. Even a scaled-back version of the Biden agenda should be deeply meaningful to anyone embracing liberal values. To do more requires electing more like-minded Democrats next time.
Let’s face it: this country is far more moderate and centrist than hard-line activists on the left and right would have us believe – notwithstanding their successes in low-turnout party primaries. At the very time suburban white women were helping Biden beat Trump in battleground states, those same swing voters were voting for Republican candidates in down-ballot races. I’m not aware that any targeted Republican-dominated state legislature in 2020 switched to Democratic control.
Some have described as “stupid wokeness” –calling for “defunding the police,” obsessing about pronouns and language like “Latin X”, summarily hectoring all opponents as troglodytes and calling for removing Washington and Lincoln’s names from public buildings as a losing strategy. There are legitimate issues in much of the “wokeness,” but both sides need to understand the consequences of their highly charged rhetoric. In addition to dramatically losing support from Independents, Democrats are now “losing white voters, rural voters and voters without college degrees by such large margins that it makes winning elections hard.”
So what should be done? While Republicans move voters by fear, Democrats trot out facts. To succeed in this asymmetrical warfare, Dems have to imbue their facts with gut-grabbing emotion, something more compelling than the flaccid “Build Back Better.” In setting their agenda, Democrats must prioritize the core concerns of ordinary folks – those worried about jobs and health care, supply chain disruptions, higher costs of food and fuel, frustration with schools, crime and existential threats of climate change. If Democrats can’t unite and make life better for working families of all shades and stripes, their agenda will go down the drain.
Democrats have failed repeatedly to communicate what they’ve already accomplished – the American Rescue Plan Act that provided cash to needy Americans and communities; rapid jabs into millions of arms that reduced infection spread, hospitalizations and deaths; ending the war in Afghanistan; rolling back Trump-ordered regulatory disasters and more. A major communications failure has been explaining clearly why, with nominal control of Congress and the Presidency, they haven’t delivered on other promises dear to their base.
How many widely popular items in the shape-shifting social infrastructure bill could even those voters carefully following the debate keep track of? How many even understand why an unwieldy reconciliation package is Biden’s only option for getting anything done amidst harsh partisan divisions? The lazy news media, unwilling or unable to explain complex supply chain logistics, have given intransigent Republican legislators and their lies a free pass.
Even smart messaging probably couldn’t have saved Biden from the short-term consequences of the chaotic exit from Afghanistan, overcome the pernicious decisions of some Congressional Republicans and governors to sacrifice human lives rather than cooperate on science-based Covid responses. But better communications might have helped the well-meaning President to avoid self-inflicted wounds caused by strategic confusion and casual over-promising.
There is no excuse for not shaping smart messages going forward, especially to counter effectively the powerfully deceptive rubric of “parental rights,” “parental choice,” and “parents matter” that Republicans are relentlessly using to turn schools into the next front in the country’s culture wars.
The ex-President may not be on the ballot, but he is still the driving force behind the party, and his policies and priorities are on his supporters’ banners and placards. Virginia Governor-elect Glen Youngkin’s so-called distancing from Trump was a clever charade. As the Washington Post reported, they were in close contact during the entire Virginia race, and a cunning Trump was sufficiently self-aware and self-serving to know his calibrated restraint could lead to a GOP victory. The professional bookmaking cognoscenti are already predicting Trump will win in 2024.
Democrats must go on a hard offensive, building a compelling narrative to convince voters that GOP officials, through their destructive silence and toxic actions, are not only a dangerous threat to the future of democracy, but a clear and present danger to government benefits they want. They must make clear that, while Republicans may pose as populists, GOP return to control of Congress and the White House would likely mean return to plutocratic economics and the rollback and elimination of heath care subsidies, eldercare programs, childcare tax credits, drug pricing benefits, good paying infrastructure jobs, and other popular priorities of the Biden administration.
The shard of sunlight in all this is that circumstances can change and can change quickly. Collective wisdom often has a limited shelf life. Remember when “demography is destiny” was the phrase used in 2006 to explain a likely never-ending series of Democratic victories? “Politics ain’t beanbag,” and it’s time to play to win.