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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

September 21: The Return of Party “Issue Ownership”

I knew there was something familiar about the way Democratic and Republican strategists were talking about the 2022 issue landscape, and it finally hit me, as I noted at New York:

In the gospel according to the Church of Bipartisanship, the way politics should work is that each side should devise distinctive solutions to commonly identified problems and then compromise where necessary to get things done. If that doesn’t happen, the blame is typically assigned to self-serving politicians and fanatical activists who prefer gridlock to any accommodation of divergent views.

Reality is more complicated. In part, that’s because the real engines of gridlock are the institutional obstacles (especially the Senate filibuster and judicial review) available to minority parties to obstruct anything they don’t want to happen. Beyond that fundamental problem, moreover, is a flawed premise at the heart of the bipartisan proposition: The parties often don’t agree on any “commonly identified problems.” Indeed, as Ron Brownstein explains, that’s why Democrats and Republicans appear to be “talking past each other” in this year’s midterm-election chatter:

“As the Democratic pollster Molly Murphy told me, 2022 is not an election year when most Americans ‘agree on what the top priorities [for the country] are’ and debate ‘different solutions’ from the two major parties. Instead, surveys show that Republican voters stress inflation, the overall condition of the economy, crime, and immigration. For Democratic voters, the top priorities are abortion rights, the threats to democracy created by former President Donald Trump and his movement, gun control, climate change, and health care.”

Now this is not, of course, an entirely unprecedented phenomenon. Ever since polling and focus groups were invented, politicians have understood there are certain issues that favor or disfavor their own parties. For ages, Republicans have struggled to maintain credibility on fundamental fairness, maintenance of an adequate social safety net, and sensitivity to the needs of minorities, while Democrats aren’t really trusted to keep government efficient, attend to national security needs, or protect traditional moral values. Ceding whole areas to the opposition unfortunately tends to reinforce such stereotypes, which in turn makes loud shouting the way to elevate the issues one “owns.”

In living memory, some of the more innovative politicians in both parties have refused to play this game of ownership and instead sought to “capture,” or at least neutralize, the other party’s issues with distinctive policies of their own. Most famously, Bill Clinton, to the great dismay of Republicans and quite a few people in his own party, insisted on offering proposals aimed at reducing crime (e.g., community policing and deploying more officers on the streets), reforming welfare (originally a work-based proposal that maintained a personal entitlement to assistance), and “reinventing government.” Yes, Clinton, whose party did not control either chamber of Congress for six of his eight years in office, ultimately went too far in accommodating Republican policies on both crime and welfare reform (thus exposing him to the charge of “triangulating” against his own party). But the basic idea of offering Democratic proposals on public concerns outside the party’s comfort zone was smart, and it drove Republicans, who constantly complained that Clinton was “stealing our issues,” absolutely crazy.

Similarly, George W. Bush, on the advice of strategist Karl Rove, spent much of his first term offering modest but significant proposals on health care (a Medicare prescription-drug benefit), education (the No Child Left Behind Act), and immigration (a comprehensive reform measure) — all issues Democrats were generally thought to “own.” Like Clinton, he paid a price among party activists for “RINO” efforts to address “Democrat issues.” Arguably, the conservative backlash to his perceived heresies, especially on immigration, fed both the tea-party movement and its descendent, the MAGA movement, though Bush himself was clearly undone by the Iraq War and his inept reaction to a financial crisis. But the impulse to build credibility on salient public concerns where none existed was wise, and it was even in some minor respects emulated by Donald J. Trump (e.g., in his effort to co-opt criminal-justice reform via the Jared Kushner–brokered First Step Act).

Is anything like this kind of mold-breaking occurring at present? To some extent, Democrats have tried to address “Republican issues” involving the economy. Certainly, Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have spent much of 2021 and 2022 touting their budget proposals as essential to the task of building a strong economy. And while Joe Manchin might have been principally responsible for branding the fiscal year 2022 budget-reconciliation bill as an “Inflation Reduction Act,” by the time Biden signed the legislation, it had come to seem like a very good idea to most Democrats. The party has been less resolute in dealing with the crime issue, other than by constantly trying to rebut made-up claims that it wants to “defund the police” as part of an orgy of “wokeness.”

Republicans, perhaps because they thought they had a surefire winning message in 2022 and are loath to depart from it, have been less adept in adjusting to shifting public concerns that undermine their position. They justifiably think of abortion as a “Democrat issue” right now — one that threatens to boost Democratic turnout while flipping many suburban swing voters — and when Lindsey Graham tried to offer a proposal to reposition them on stronger ground, the reaction among Republicans was overwhelmingly negative, as the Washington Post reported:

“In a memo to GOP campaigns released this week, the Republican National Committee laid out what it called a winning message on abortion: Press Democrats on where they stand on the procedure later in pregnancy, seek ‘common ground’ on exceptions to bans and keep the focus on crime and the economy. Then, Senator Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) introduced legislation to ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy — overshadowing new inflation numbers and undermining what many GOP strategists see as their best message for the fall: ‘Leave it to the states.’

“’It’s an absolute disaster,’ GOP strategist John Thomas said, as Republican Senate nominees already targeted for their comments on abortion were asked to weigh in. ‘Oy vey,’ he said when informed that Blake Masters in battleground state Arizona had just expressed his support.”

Even if Republicans succeed in making inflation or crime or border control more salient than abortion among 2022 voters, they will pay a price down the road — among voters generally and in their powerfully anti-abortion base — by running for the hills when an issue is raised that’s not going to go away in the foreseeable future. Maybe someday the two parties can get onto the same page when it comes to the menu of national problems they intend to address. But don’t hold your breath.

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