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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes

In their post, “Democrats Worry A Lot About Policies That Win Elections. That’s Short-Sighted,” Lee Drutman and Meredith Conroy write at FiveThirtyEight: Democratic leaders, activists and strategists spend a lot of time discussing — and arguing about — policy under the assumption that the policies the party prioritizes affect whether they will win the next election. It’s been a big part of President Biden’s governing strategy so far, and one need look no further than Democrats blaming talk of defunding the police for losses in the House in 2020 or, conversely, citing health care in the 2018 midterm elections as the reason they did so well to understand the role they think policy plays in their electoral success….But the research on whether choosing the right policy actually helps parties win elections is far less clear. How Democrats talk in 2021 and 2022 and what they prioritize may — or may not — help them win the 2022 midterm elections, but it will shape the policy and political landscape for the future in potentially profound ways. And that, perhaps, is what Democrats should be more worried about….In political science, there’s a large body of research that examines how policy shapes politics. The broad takeaway is that policy matters — a lot — but not in the ways that political pundits often think it does. Rather than helping parties win the next election, research suggests that major policies remake the political landscape in ways that reverberate far into the future — including changing expectations of government and creating new voter constituencies. This, in turn, can shape future elections.”

Drutman and Conroy add “Of course, the shorter-term risk is that any new government program yields an immediate backlash. It’s far easier for opponents to play up the costs and demonize the program when no voters have come to rely on the benefits. Moreover, since many social spending programs are likely to benefit communities of color, Republican opposition is likely to play on racial tropes, as it did with the ACA and other social programs before that.” Further, “The potential electoral risk is why some Democrats and Democratic strategists want the party to focus more on bread-and-butter issues, like economic policy. The concern is that if Democrats make race and racial justice too much of their agenda, they risk alienating voters, especially white voters without a college degree, who are geographically important. But what this misses is that Republican messaging is going to focus on contentious conflicts over race and identity regardless of what Democrats do. So if the Biden administration and Democratic Party leaders think they can duck having these conversations, they are mistaken, especially given that a few outlets exercise a stranglehold over the media ecosystem on the political right. Moreover, spending on expanded social programs might actually help Democrats win over some of these voters in the long run, especially since they tend to be lower-income and are also more likely to be women, who would benefit most directly from free child care.” In their conclusion, however, the authors note that, “even policies that eventually poll well take time to become popular because voters must experience them and actually value them. Partisanship is also sticky and slow to change. Most voters evaluate policy and programs through partisan media and judge programs by whether the programs are Democratic programs or Republican programs. But on the margins — and especially over time — policies shape both identities and party coalitions.”

“If this were a poker game, it could be said that this year, with such a grand set of plans, they bet the house on a pair of 3’s,” Charlie Cook writes at the Cook Political Report. “Pushing a Franklin D. Roosevelt- or Lyndon B. Johnson-sized agenda—without the massive House and Senate majorities those two presidents’ parties enjoyed—is more than just a misreading….It is also hard to believe that FDR or LBJ would remain stymied as long as Biden has by a faction of their own party, holding legislative hostage one of the two signature spending packages that actually had a chance of being enacted as written. The AJA hard-infrastructure package, focused on concrete, steel, bricks, mortar, electric grid, and broadband, had (note past tense) a real chance of passing largely intact, and potentially with at least some support (at least initially) from a few Republicans. Now, no matter what its size and configuration, Democrats would be lucky to get more than a handful of GOP House and Senate votes, at best….It is a decent bet that the winning party next year will not be the party that the election is about….On the other hand, if this election is about Trump and a Republican Party seemingly obsessed by fighting culture wars—clashing with Democrats over symbols and engaging in proxy fights, appealing to a shrinking core constituency—Democrats can win….Midterms are about the president and party that is in power, not one that is no longer in charge. But these might be the only arrows in the Democratic quiver.”

Talking Points Memo Editor Josh Marshall puts it all into a clarifying perspective: “Democrats appear to be limping their way toward passing a slimmed down version of the President’s agenda. I don’t think we should be overly distressed that the final number is around $2 trillion as opposed to $3.5 trillion. You never get everything you want. And we can’t run from the reality that Democrats control Congress by the most tenuous of margins – in fact, no margin at all in the Senate. But Democrats should be asking themselves why it is that over the last three to four months the President’s public approval has fallen roughly ten points. In a highly partisan and polarized age that is simply a massive drop….As I and many others have argued, the clearest explanation is the summer resurgence of COVID. Or more specifically, the whipsaw realization that COVID wasn’t done….Combined with that you have various economic knock on effects – high prices for a number of important consumer items, at least the appearance (the reality is less clear) of a lagging job market, and all manner of shipping delays and shortages of all manner of things people want to buy….But most of the public doesn’t have a clear sense of what those things even are. And to the extent they do, they’re not what most people are focused on. They’re mostly focused on COVID and getting out of the hole we collectively fell into almost two years ago. Popularity isn’t the same as saliency….The only way forward is to pass the bill. Give Democrats something to be enthused about, show everyone else the President is able to get things done and then get about selling what’s in the bill and working and being seen to work nonstop on bringing the Pandemic to heel.”

2 comments on “Political Strategy Notes

  1. Victor on

    The problem with the “take the win, any win at this point” argument is that it is premised on the ACA having become popular over time. The ACA become somewhat less unpopular, but it hasn’t really helped Democrats politically.

    • Martin Lawford on

      “It turns out that across the board, for all ages and family sizes, for HMO, PPO, and POS plans, premium increases averaged about 60 percent from 2013, the last year before ACA reforms took effect, to 2017.” source: Forbes Magazine, citing eHealth insurance brokerage, 3/22/17 The main thing the Affordable Care Act did was expand Medicaid but it did not lower medical costs for most Americans.


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