“Although Donald Trump has hovered over American politics since leaving office, most voters saw him as yesterday’s news,” E. J. Dionne, Jr. writes in his Washington Post column. “Now, he’s very much today’s news, and — thanks to the accelerating pace of the House’s Jan. 6 inquiry — tomorrow’s. This should change the trajectory of this year’s midterm election politics.”
Dionne adds, “Democrats did well in 2018 and 2020, when a significant share of the electorate thought the survival of our democracy was on the ballot. Democrats need to put democracy on the ballot again this year.” Further, Dionne notes,
Trump said the subversive part out loud on Sunday when he declared that his vice president, Mike Pence, “could have overturned the election.” This acknowledged outright what Trump’s real goal was. The day before, Trump dangled the prospect of pardons for those convicted over the Jan. 6 attack if he were returned to office….the New York Times reported this week that, while president, Trump directed his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani to explore whether the Department of Homeland Security or the Justice Department could legally take control of voting machines in swing states.
The stakes here involve not just what Trump did but also what Republicans might be preparing to do in 2022 and 2024. Trump is pushing to elect secretaries of state and governors who endorse his lies about 2020 and would be willing to politicize the process of counting ballots. Already, more than a dozen Republican-controlled states have rolled back ballot access.
Dionne asks, “So why are Democrats not shouting from the rooftops about the need to protect democracy?”
One reason political consultants advance: Democracy issues are a tough sell with most voters, who are far more invested in their day-to-day problems than in a former president or a threat that still feels abstract.
“Making democracy a front-and-center issue is in competition with the malaise people feel over the economy, even if there’s a lot of good news about the economy,” Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said in an interview. Voters, she added, “look at January 6 as something of a stand-alone event.”
In contrast to 2018 and 2020, said Stephanie Cutter, a longtime Democratic consultant who worked in the Obama administration, “in 2022, the threat of Trump will not be enough to make suburban women vote Democratic.”
For Democrats, this presents a dilemma: Voters care about democracy, but they are preoccupied with Covid, rising gas and grocery prices and a range of immediate concerns that affect their day-to-day lives. “Candidates are urged to take a pass on important — and potentially beneficial — issues because they are secondary or tertiary to key voting groups,” Dionne writes. “Yet the only chance such issues have of becoming salient is if politicians and their campaigns press them relentlessly.”
Republicans have scored some big wins with sheer repetition. Their candidate for Governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin provided the object lesson in November. His campaign hammered a non-issue, “critical race theory” repeatedly until it got enough buzz to influence swing voters.
The issue this year is less the threat that Trump himself presents, and more his party’s embrace of his contempt for democracy. Democrats should remember they are not campaigning against Trump the individual. They are running against his midterm lackeys, and Democratic campaign rhetoric should reflect that difference. Make Republican House and Senate candidates own their shameful abandonment of American democracy – every day between now and November 8th. Dionne adds,
Despite their caveats, both Cutter and Greenberg offer paths toward making the looming danger central in 2022. Cutter noted that highlighting bread-and-butter concerns does not preclude Democrats from arguing that “if we don’t win in 2022, the fight for democracy moves backward,” adding: “There’s room for both.”
Greenberg sees ways to link the “big lie” about 2020 with “disinformation about vaccines” as part of the same “dark force” that ignites anxiety among suburban voters. And an argument that “voters should decide elections, not mobs or politicians” would also resonate, she said, because “what people get upset about is that their votes don’t really count.”
Dionne concludes, “Democrats will be guilty of political malpractice if they fail to challenge Republicans to get off the fence. For their own sake and the country’s, they must demand that GOP candidates stand unambiguously either with or against Trump’s ongoing efforts to demolish American democracy.”