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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Democratic Strategists Are Asking the Wrong Question About the White Working Class

If you were a Democratic political strategist with a multi-million dollar budget for opinion research about the white working class, which question would you want to investigate?

Read the Memo.

Democrats: Let’s Face Reality – The Term “People of Color” Doesn’t Describe a Political Coalition That Actually Exists.

The term “People of Color” is now playing a central role in the Democratic discussion of political strategy.

Read the memo.

Democratic Candidates: The Whole Debate about “Critical Race Theory” is a Cynical GOP propaganda trap – Here’s What you Should Say Instead

The latest example of this extremely effective GOP exploitation of language is the current debate over “Critical Race Theory” – a perspective about race that is supposedly being foisted on children in classrooms around the country.

Plausible Strategy for Surge of Immigrants

Democratic officeholders and candidates who plan to run in 2022 and 2024 need to face a simple, brutal fact – many will lose their next elections and will return control of government to the GOP if they do not offer a more plausible strategy for reducing the surge of immigrants at the border

Democrats in 2022 and 2024 will lose elections without a strategy.

Let’s Face It: The Democratic Party is Not a “Big Tent” Political Coalition – But it Desperately Needs to Become One.

Democrats routinely describe the Democratic Party as a “coalition” or even a “big tent coalition.” But in reality Dems know that this is not the case.

American Business Has the Power to Stop the GOP Assault on Democracy – Here’s a Strategy to Make Them Do It.

America is now well on its way to creating an electoral system that functions like Mexico’s during its era of one-party rule.

The Daily Strategist

January 25, 2022

Political Strategy Notes

Today President Biden will sign legislation that provides the most far-reaching infrastructure upgrades since the administration of FDR. The Greensboro News and Record marks the occasion with their editorial on “The bipartisan infrastructure deal.” which notes “The passage of President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, after months of wrangling and tough negotiating, is good news for everyone — or certainly should be. Our infrastructure has required attention for some time now, as we were first warned decades ago, when roads began failing and bridges began falling….And now, thanks to Biden’s deal, which he plans to sign into law on Monday, we’ll finally receive structural repairs and improvements that will put us on a better platform to grow our economy and compete with other nations….Here are some highlights of the bill’s provisions:…$110 billion to repair 173,000 total miles of America’s highways and major roads and 45,000 bridges that are in poor condition….$39 billion to expand transportation systems, improve accessibility for people with disabilities and buy zero-emission and low-emission buses….$7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations and $5 billion for the purchase of electric school buses and hybrids, reducing reliance on school buses that run on diesel fuel….$65 billion for broadband access to improve internet service for rural areas, low-income families and tribal communities….$65 billion to improve the reliability and resiliency of the power grid — while boosting carbon-capture technologies and more environmentally friendly electricity sources like clean hydrogen….$55 billion for water and wastewater infrastructure — including $15 billion to replace lead pipes and $10 billion to address water contamination from known pollutants….The deal is expected to bring billions in investments to North Carolina, both our urban and rural areas….“The jobs created by this legislation are jobs that cannot be outsourced. They will be performed here in the United States of America,” Rep. Deborah Ross of N.C.’s 2nd Congressional District said during a news conference Monday in Raleigh. “It will boost all of our workers, from the folks who pave the roads to the scientists and engineers who are designing 21st century transportation networks, water and sewer systems and cutting-edge electrical grids.”…It is a victory for Biden. It’s also a victory for his vision of bipartisanship. Best of all, it’s a victory for the American people as we compete to be the world’s marketplace, strive to provide our children with a world-class education and set the stage for a prosperous and peaceful future.”

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr. asks “Why do Democrats let Republicans set the terms of debate?,” and writes: “Ever since the House passed the bipartisan bill to do lots of building and rebuilding around the country, Republicans have been at each other’s throats….Some Republicans said it was great to vote for roads, bridges and broadband. But most in the party — encouraged by Mr. Infrastructure Week himself, Donald Trump — said that voting for roads, bridges and broadband made you a traitor for helping President Biden, and maybe even a socialist. There are two lessons here. First, those who regularly pretend that polarization affects both parties equally need to reckon with a GOP so committed to obstruction that a majority of its House members and senators insist that party loyalty demands opposing new highways in their own districts or states….The more important lesson relates to the importance of controlling the terms of the political debate….Taking your opponent’s bait and playing on your opposition’s turf is the surest path to defeat. To succeed in politics, you need to make your opponent respond to you….This is what Democrats did by moving the infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk. The GOP’s internal bloodletting quickly followed. Approving Biden’s Build Back Better initiatives could have the same effect….Taking your opponent’s bait and playing on your opposition’s turf is the surest path to defeat. To succeed in politics, you need to make your opponent respond to you….This is what Democrats did by moving the infrastructure bill to Biden’s desk. The GOP’s internal bloodletting quickly followed. Approving Biden’s Build Back Better initiatives could have the same effect…….No doubt, the media typically gravitates toward eye-catching cultural issues that don’t involve the detailed explanations that, say, a tax credit or a health-care expansion require. And Democrats’ narrow majorities, coupled with the Senate’s arcane rules, make passing anything — not just voting rights — excruciatingly difficult….But alibis and excuses don’t win arguments (or elections), and if the bad news for Democrats in The Post-ABC News poll published Sunday doesn’t get their attention, I don’t know what will….The party, starting with the president when he signs the infrastructure bill on Monday, can use the power it has now to change the nation’s political conversation. Or it can resign itself to defeat at the hands of a GOP in which a majority is not even willing to fix the damned roads.”

At The Hill, Bill Press writes, “In itself, the BIF is the largest public works investment since President Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System in 1956. But its impact will be far greater. Biden’s bill is not just about roads, bridges, and tunnels. It also covers public transportation, passenger and freight rail, electric vehicles, ports and airports, water and wastewater treatment plants, the electric grid, and broadband access….But the BIF does more than pump money into the economy. It also serves a greater purpose: to prove, once again, that government can be a force for good and — as Joe Biden promised but nobody wanted to believe – that Democrats and Republicans, working together, can still get big things done….Our broken-down infrastructure’s not the only thing that needs a good fix. So’s the Democratic Party’s message machine. Democrats need to stop playing defense and start playing offense. Stop explaining process and start talking product….Their message should be loud and clear. You elected us to end the Trump chaos and get big things done and we delivered: the biggest public works program ever. And we’ll soon add, in the “Build Back Better Bill,” the biggest boost for families ever and the strongest action ever taken to combat climate change….Democrats have a great product. Now it’s time to sell it.”

“The bipartisanship that began with the passage of the physical infrastructure bill in the Senate could not have been extended to the House if the bill got yoked to the Build Back Better bill, as no Republican could tolerate a vote for the former being perceived as a vote for the latter,” Bill Scher writes in “With the Infrastructure Act, Washington’s Trust Gap Closes a Bit” at The Washington Monthly. “Meanwhile, moderate House Democrats wanted to replicate the Senate and keep a modicum of Republicans on board, so they would have an indisputable bipartisan success to tout at home….As she moved to bring the Senate infrastructure bill to the House floor, in the final hours, Pelosi managed to satisfy all camps—distancing the bill from Build Back Better to attract sufficient Republican support, securing enough commitment from the moderates on Build Back Better to hold the bulk of progressive support….Knowing that six Democrats were planning to vote “Nay” (and believing that only two of them could be flipped if necessary), Pelosi still needed a few Republicans to cross the aisle. Thirteen did, providing the margin of victory. In fact, without the 13 House Republicans and the 19 Senate Republicans who voted yes, the physical infrastructure bill would not have passed either congressional chamber….First, moderate Democrats have to follow through on Build Back Better. Manchin and Sinema have been busy shaping the bill to their liking, so they should support it. Besides, if they killed it, the Democratic circular firing squad would jeopardize the already slim Democratic chances in the 2022 midterm elections. Do Manchin and Sinema really want to doom Senators Mark Kelly, Catherine Cortez Masto, or Michael Bennet?…Trust needs to be trending for Congress to do anything next year. The cold reality is that once the Build Back Better process is finished, what comes next for Biden’s legislative agenda is unclear….to prematurely give up would be to take the wrong lesson from what just happened with infrastructure. The only way to overcome long odds is to trust and to try.”

Walter: Why ‘Wokeness’ Is Not the Biggest Problem for Dems

From “It’s Competence, Not “Wokeness” That’s Hurting Democrats” by Amy Walter at The Cook Political Report:

In the wake of last week’s defeat of Democratic candidates across the country, an elite consensus has formed that blames Democrats’ failures at the ballot box on their “wokeness.” In attempting to address structural racial injustice, they argue, Democrats have become as inflexible and judgmental as those they are fighting against. They’ve become addicted to litmus tests and sloganeering (i.e., “defund the police”) as a way to measure success.

On PBS NewsHour, longtime Democratic strategist James Carville blamed Democrats’ losses on “stupid wokeness,” arguing that “this ‘defund the police’ lunacy, this ‘take Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools,’ that — people see that.” It’s time for Democrats, said Carville, “to go to a woke detox center.” Plenty of other columnists jumped on the ‘detox’ bandwagon, including The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, whose most recent column was headlined: “Wokeness Derails Democrats.”

But, there is a chicken and the egg problem with these theories. Are Democrats losing because they are embracing progressive policies like critical race theory? Or are they losing because they are in charge in Washington and the economy and COVID remain significant concerns? Imagine for a moment that the progress we saw earlier this spring on COVID and the economy had continued unabated. Or if the administration had better handled the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Do we think that President Biden’s job approval rating would be in the low 40s? Probably not. Suppose Biden’s job approval ratings were still at 53 percent this fall (as they had been earlier this summer). Do we really think that attacks on critical race theory would have been enough for a Republican to win in Virginia? I don’t.

A recent Monmouth poll asked voters these very questions. By a seven-point margin, more voters said that the president’s bigger problem was his inability to get Washington working (36 percent) than the party’s leftward swing (29 percent). More critical, independent voters, “are more likely to point to capability (42%) than ideology (26%) as Biden’s bigger problem.”

In other words, the challenge for this administration is less about ‘wokeness’ than it is about competence. More specifically, rising inflation is a bigger threat to Democrats in 2022 than teaching about racism.

Walter goes on to present more data to support her case. At The New York Times, however, columnist Paul Krugman argues that fears about inflation damage are likely overwrought, in light of historical experience. But the perception of inflation can have more dire political consequences than the reality of it. Of course it’s possible that both factors, and a few more, contributed to the Democratic defeats in Virginia.

Political Strategy Notes

New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall writes, “In the 11 months from January 2020 to February 2021, Fox referred to critical race theory — which has come to be known as C.R.T. — 164 times, according to the liberal advocacy group Media Matters. In the subsequent three and a half months, from May through mid-August, as the contest between Glenn Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe for governor in Virginia intensified, the number of on-air references shot up to more than 1,900….There is clear evidence that this issue touched a nerve across a wide swath of the electorate, evidence that suggests that C.R.T. can simultaneously be a Republican dog whistle and a significant political liability for the Democratic Party. Fox News raised the salience of C.R.T., but it resonated beyond the network’s viewers….As [Youngkin strategist Kristin ]Davison recounted the story to [Politico writer Ryan] Lizza: Within three hours of the debate where Terry said “I don’t think parents should be involved in what the school should be teaching,” we had a video out hitting this because it tapped into just parents not knowing. And that was the fight. It wasn’t just C.R.T. That’s an easier issue to talk about on TV. That’s not what we focused on here; it was more “parents matter.” Launching that message took the education discussion to a different level. Edsall adds, “Nonetheless, the immediate political question is this: How should Democrats deal with the “weaponization” of critical race theory?…’

Among the responses, Edsall notes, “I asked Anat Shenker-Osorio, a California-based communications consultant who specializes in the development of progressive messaging, especially in techniques to counter conservative and Republican campaign themes. Her reply by email: ‘What Democrats need to do is recognize that this is simply Republicans recording a new cover of the same song. They cast a new scapegoat and remix, hoping to divide us along lines of race, background or gender identity, and distract us from their corruption.’ There are, she continued, “proven ways to best right-wing divide-in-order-to-conquer strategies”:Democrats begin by saying, for example, “No matter our color, background, or ZIP code, we want our kids to learn to reckon with the mistakes of our past, understand our present, and create a better future for us all.” Embracing the critical — and highly contested — value of freedom, by championing kids’ freedom to learn who they are, where they come from, and all they can become, is also paramount. Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard, had a harder edge in his emailed reply to my inquiry: “Democratic candidates should deal seriously and forthrightly with the cultural issues that clearly concern many voters.” Learning, he continued, “entails dialogue and pluralism and self-disciplined willingness to listen even to those with whom one may disagree strongly, which is why the far-flung efforts to erase or muzzle the 1619 Project, or critical race theory or other manifestations of anti-racist pedagogy must be rejected. Democrats should put themselves firmly on the side of open discussion, not compelled silence….”They should vocally eschew bad ideas such as the notion that there has been no substantial betterment in race relations over the past fifty years, or that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are unworthy of commemoration, or that Black people are incapable of being racist, or that speech that is allegedly racist ought to be banned. At the same time, they should vocally embrace what is difficult for any sensible person to deny: that racial injustice has been and remains a destructive force that must be overcome if we are to enjoy more fully the promising potential of our multiracial democracy….I agree.”

In their article, “Joe Manchin has a point: Means-testing would make ‘social infrastructure’ bill affordable,” at The Hill, Douglas J. Besharov, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and director of its Welfare Reform Academy and Douglas M. Call a lecturer at the University of Maryland and the deputy director of the Welfare Reform Academy, write: “Now that the physical infrastructure bill has passed, Democrats are working to shoehorn their social priorities into a shrinking budget target, pared down from an earlier $3.5 trillion to around $1.75 trillion. But instead of real cuts, it appears that they are aiming to simply reduce the number of years for which some programs are approved — to make them seem less expensive — without actually lowering their long-term cost….The idea is that, after enacted, public support will grow and Democrats (or the Republicans, should they win control next year) will extend the programs. But given the comments of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and others, that feels like a “riverboat gamble,” as the late Sen. Howard Baker called the Reagan tax cuts. Wiser policy would be to make the programs affordable by targeting them to families really needing help. In other words, as Manchin and others have pointed out: Means-testing would make the social infrastructure bill more affordable….For years, fixing the work and marriage disincentives in the EITC and other safety-net programs was stymied by the inability of advocates to find ways to pay for them. Now there is money on the table. Removing them might not be as dramatically sweeping as “a tax cut for all,” but it could be just the policy bridge needed to make a real improvement in the lives of struggling families — one that progressives and moderates could get behind.”

In “Biden has reached a critical moment in the battle for blue-collar voters,” Ronald Brownstein writes at CNN Politics: “In Republican-leaning states and districts, “Democratic candidates have to forcibly separate themselves from the Democratic brand” on cultural questions, says Andrew Levison, a contributing editor at The Democratic Strategist, a website that debates the party’s choices. He argues that “a reckoning does have to be done with certain elements of the progressive wing of the party” and that Biden should directly renounce some left-leaning ideas on race the way Bill Clinton did in 1992, when he criticized the rapper Sister Souljah. “Standing up for certain traditional cultural principles against the left might help Biden establish his own bona fides” for 2024, says Levison. “He can’t really ride on ‘Amtrak Joe.’ ” Levison, a long-time advocate of Black political empowerment and multi-racial coalitions for social reform, has recently written that “If Democrats could simply regain the white working class vote share that they won in 2008, this would be adequate to win many elections that Dems now loose. As a result it is not necessary for Democrats to try to win a large majority of all white working class voters and certainly not to try to win passionate Trump supporters. It is just necessary to regain perhaps 10-15% of the white working class vote that once voted Democratic and now goes Republican….In red state districts Democratic candidates need to proudly embrace white working class culture and then consciously and intensely attack their Republican opponents as being “extremists” who do not embody the decent elements of traditional American culture and values.”

The Centrist Third Party Delusion

Some new data relevant to one of my favorite false political theories became available, so I wrote about it at New York:

An enduring fantasy about American politics is that our polarized two-party system may give way to a centrist third party that will rise to power on the frustrations of voters tired of gridlock and refusals to compromise in the national interest. You hear this cry for a fresh option more and more as Republicans systematically deploy the filibuster to obstruct Joe Biden’s agenda, and Joe Biden’s Democrats cannot or will not chase Republicans around Washington with candy and valentines until deals are cut and things get done. Indeed, Gallup found earlier this year that a record-high 62 percent of Americans agreed that “the parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.”

That’s in theory, of course. In reality, a lot of Americans who say they are angry at the two-party system are really just angry at the party opposing their own for failing to get out of the way or go off to die. And even if you could somehow get all the malcontents together in one room, do they actually speak the same ideological language and agree on what is to be done when all the “getting things done” commences?

A new typology of American voters from the Pew Research Center shows why a centrist third party is problematic in the extreme. After asking a very large sample of voters a battery of questions aimed at determining their partisan leanings and ideological tendencies, alongside positions on key issues, Pew came up with nine groups. Four (Progressive Left, Establishment Liberals, Democratic Mainstays, and Outsider Left) are Democratic leaning, four more (Faith and Flag Conservatives, Committed Conservatives, Populist Right, and Ambivalent Right) are Republican leaning, and one (Stressed Sideliners) leans neither way.

If you take the left and right groups least intensely partisan (the Outsider Left and the Ambivalent Right) and add them to the nonpartisan Stressed Sideliners, you get a substantial 37 percent of the electorate, enough to form a plurality in close three-way political contests. But there are two big obstacles to them becoming an effective Third Force, notes Pew:

“Surveys by Pew Research Center and other national polling organizations have found broad support, in principle, for a third major political party. Yet the typology study finds that the three groups with the largest shares of self-identified independents (most of whom lean toward a party) — Stressed Sideliners, Outsider Left and Ambivalent Right — have very little in common politically. Stressed Sideliners hold mixed views; Ambivalent Right are conservative on many economic issues, while moderate on some social issues; and Outsider Left are very liberal on most issues, especially on race and the social safety net.”

These three groups do have one negative point of conjunction:

“What these groups do have in common is relatively low interest in politics: They had the lowest rates of voting in the 2020 presidential election and are less likely than other groups to follow government and public affairs most of the time.”

So even if you designed a party or a candidate that could somehow appeal to all of the politically dispossessed, many in the target audience might not notice or wouldn’t vote anyway. And if they did get motivated enough to consider the Third Force, they might tear each other apart on the way to saving the country.

Ultimately, the purported constituents for a centrist third party aren’t as large a group as is often imagined and aren’t really centrists, either. And their alienation from both parties may be more about alienation from politics or, to put it another way, from the prospect of doing anything about their grievances. This fantasy will never die, but it’s not springing into real life in the foreseeable future.

Dann and Jennings: Will Democrats Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth?

The following article, by Marc Dann former Attorney General of Ohio and founding partner of Advocate Attorneys and Northeast Ohio political consultant and media specialist Leo Jennings III, is cross-posted from Working-Class Perspectives. Dann and Jennings were part of the team that sued DeWine and the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services.

This has been a month of bad news for the Democratic Party. The conflicts around the infrastructure and Build Back Better bills and the November election results make clear that Republicans hold significant advantages with voters on critical issues including border security, crime, national security, and the economy.

As bad as the news has been, however, Republicans and their corporate benefactors may have recently handed Democrats a gift that will enable them to get off the mat and actually pick up seats in the House and Senate, take control of state legislatures, and evict Republicans from governor’s mansions—if they are smart enough to unwrap and use it.

The gift comes courtesy of the 25 GOP governors who earlier this year opted not to accept billions of dollars in fully federally funded supplemental unemployment benefits authorized by the American Rescue Act. As a result of their callous decision more than 4 million involuntarily unemployed Americans lost $300 in weekly payments they desperately needed. The Century Foundation estimated that families crushed by the COVID-19 pandemic would lose an average of $6,000 as a result of the benefit reduction.

Teixeira: Stick a Fork In ‘Em: The Exit Polls Are Done

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

G. Elliott Morris, the Economist data journalist, looked into some of the VA traditional exit poll claims and finds them, essentially, unbelievable. I agree.

“[The traditional exit polls show] show that Democrats made gains with Latino and Asian voters between 2020 and 2021 despite their declining vote share statewide. According to Edison, Youngkin won in Virginia because McAuliffe’s share of the two-party vote with whites fell by eight points relative to Biden’s share with the group last year.

This is not unbelievable in isolation. Eg, perhaps Latino voters were just particularly drawn to Trump last year, and so have now reverted to their typical Democratic lean. However, this is a weird result when you consider that it is rare for a party to improve significantly with a group when their overall vote share falls by six points over a year. Usually, the public moves in more parallel strides. (NB: There is more heterogeneity on longer time horizons, to be sure.)

The Edison exit poll starts looking a lot stranger once we look at swings among white voters by their education level. According to Edison, McAuliffe won just 24% of white voters without degrees. That’s compared to Joe Biden’s 38% just a year ago — making for a 14-point decline. And according to their exits, college-educated whites and voters of color did not change significantly since 2020:

OK, now things are starting to fail the smell test. Maybe you believe non-college-educated whites moved right since 2020. That is a reasonable assumption; Biden is less popular than he was a year ago and, after all, Democrats did lose the election! But do we really believe that the only group to change its political leaning since 2020 was whites without degrees? In an election where overall Democratic margin fell by ten points? That explanation falls flat even before we look at other evidence.

But if we do, the county and precinct-level results of the election are pretty damning of the exits. The two charts below show that Terry McAuliffe’s share of the vote fell by less relative to Joe Biden’s share of the vote in the counties with the highest percentages of non-college whites. Turnout was also down the least in places with a middling share of non-college whites.

How is this reconcilable with the exit poll? The short answer is that it’s not. While it is technically possible that white college-educated voters in counties with a lot of non-college whites are driving the trends in the figures above, that wouldn’t explain the full relationship. Besides, according to Edison, college-educated whites didn’t change their behavior at all since 2020! And there aren’t enough non-whites in these counties to drive significant trends either; the exits estimate voters of color made up just over a fourth of Virginian voters in 2021, and there are fewer of them in the counties with the highest shares of non-college whites.

As if this weren’t enough, friend of the blog Lenny Bronner (who runs the elections-forecasting models for the Washington Post) found that McAuliffe did worse versus Biden in the precincts with the most African Americans and Hispanics. This is a direct contradiction of the exit poll!”

Ridiculous. These data are just not trustworthy. And yet political journalists continue to write story after story based on them, since the traditional exit poll fielded by Edison still has dominant market share in the media. That should change. Until then, caveat emptor.

Democratic Strategists Are Asking the Wrong Question About the White Working Class

If you were a Democratic political strategist with a multi-million dollar budget for opinion research about the white working class, which question would you want to investigate?

  1. How can Democrats convince the white working class to vote Democratic?
  2. How can Democrats identify a distinct, persuadable sector of the white working class and then convince members of that specific group to vote Democratic?

The second question is obviously far more practical and more likely to lead to useful political strategies than the first. After all, in 2008 rough estimates suggest that around 40% of less than college white voters voted Democratic. This then declined to around 36% in 2012, 31% in 2016 and then rebounded slightly to 33% in 2020. Other more precise definitions of the term “working class” produce a somewhat higher but still similar pattern of results

If Democrats could simply regain the white working class vote share that they won in 2008, this would be adequate to win many elections that Dems now loose. As a result it is not necessary for Democrats to try to win a large majority of all white working class voters and certainly not to try to win passionate Trump supporters. It is just necessary to regain perhaps 10-15% of the white working class vote that once voted Democratic and now goes Republican.

The problem, however, is that virtually the entire Democratic strategic discussion in the media today asks the first question above rather than the second.

One dramatic example is the current debate about the white working class versus a “new” coalition of People of Color and pro-Democratic college educated whites. The debate, which has flowed from the New York Times, The Atlantic and the New Republic to  a range of progressive blogs, Substacks and other media, has pitted leading political data analysts like Nate Cohn, Ron Brownstein, Tom Edsall, Ruy Teixeira, David Shor and others against various advocates of the “new coalition” strategy.

To Read the Memo, Click Here.

Democrats Can Only Lose Again By Abandoning Their Agenda

In the wake of the disappointing 2021 off-year elections, I heard disturbing reactions from Democrats and responded at New York:

Things did not go well for Democrats in the 2021 elections. Most notably, Terry McAuliffe lost the governorship his party had held since 2009 in Virginia, a state that Joe Biden carried by ten points just last year; Democrats also lost the state lieutenant governor’s race, are behind in the state attorney general’s race, and may lose control of one chamber of the legislature. In New Jersey, Democratic governor Phil Murphy, expected to romp to an easy reelection, is in a near dead heat with Republican Jack Ciattarelli with the outcome still in doubt. And Democratic Senate president Steve Sweeney is in danger of losing to an anonymous schmo who barely even had a campaign. In New York, three Democratic-sponsored ballot initiatives aimed at making voting easier and simplifying redistricting went down to defeat. Happy days are not here again for the Donkey Party.

There are myriad factors that went into these disappointing but hardly atypical off-year setbacks, perhaps the most important being simply an age-old and nearly universal backlash against the party of newly elected presidents (Republicans got waxed in New Jersey and Virginia in 2017). And yes, such losses usually portend a poor showing in the upcoming midterm elections (the president’s party has lost U.S. House, Senate, and gubernatorial seats in the last four midterms).

But some narcissistic congressional Democrats seem to assume the bad Election Night is all about them, and they want to learn exactly the wrong lesson going forward. Punchbowl News reports:

“Numerous Democrats privately have told us they’re uneasy with the contours of the massive Build Better Act despite weeks of intra-party negotiations. They believe the party leadership is rushing through the final stages of these talks. Last night’s loss – or losses – won’t end Democrats’ quest to pass the massive reconciliation package, but it will certainly impact it. Pelosi and her leadership team were hoping for floor passage this week. However, Tuesday losses will give new heft to those voices that have been suggesting the speaker slow the agenda down and bring it back to the center.”

“Bring it back to the center” is code for reducing the size, scope, and ambition of the Build Back Better package, which has, as a matter of fact, already happened thanks to the demands of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema and their House allies. Some of these same “centrist” Democrats typically think House passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill would send some sort of important signal to voters, and they may even be under the illusion that the Virginians who elected Youngkin in a high-turnout contest were somehow longing for the roads and bridges they have been denied. (To be clear, some Democrats thought of as “centrists” or “moderates,” like the Third Way organization, have rejected the let’s-do-less mantra emphatically).

Actually, the House progressives with whom the centrists are battling fully plan to vote for the infrastructure bill, perhaps even without conditions. But the single quickest way to show Democrats can get something done is to unlock the logjam by reaching quick agreement on BBB and then immediately passing the infrastructure bill. That’s the opposite of “suggesting the speaker slow the agenda down.”

Beyond that, Democratic centrists need to get out of the habit of thinking that voters are watching their every move and will reward or punish them instantly for too much perceived liberalism. Even before the November 2 setbacks, the odds of Democrats holding on to their trifecta in 2022 were extremely low. On the two occasions since 1934 when the president’s party gained House seats in a midterm, the president in question (Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002) enjoyed approval ratings in the 60s. In this polarized moment of American political history, Joe Biden couldn’t match their numbers even if COVID-19 disappeared, the economy boomed, friendly unicorns romped across the landscape, and lollipops dropped from the sky. Instead of decimating their own agenda in an uninformed and likely vain effort to head off the inevitable, congressional Democrats should focus on what they can accomplish in this fleeting moment of power, which may not recur for years. Lowering their sights and abandoning legislative goals — goals whose achievement actually may, for all we know, make them more popular in 2022 — gives Republicans an anticipatory victory they have by no means earned.

Losing elections is painful, and as my colleague Eric Levitz points out, the 2021 defeats are particularly painful because Republicans have never paid the price for their obeisance to the outlaw president who may yet head up their next presidential ticket. There could be discrete lessons to be learned from what happened on November 2, including the inadequacy of a playbook that focused too much on COVID-19 mandate debates and the specter of Trump, who wasn’t on the ballot. And more generally, Democrats need to adjust to the fact that we are in a period of high voter engagement in which just inflaming your own base won’t be enough.

But there is no sensible interpretation of the 2021 defeats that suggests a muddled, cramped, confusing, diminished, or delayed legislative agenda will save Democrats in 2022 and beyond. They still have a good chance to hang on to the White House in 2024; after all, Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama won reelection after terrible midterm performances by their party. But more importantly, they need to remember the purpose of political power: to accomplish things they cannot get done in opposition or in periods of divided government. The future truly is right now.

Political Strategy Notes

In his post mortem on Tuesday’s two governorship elections, E. J. Dionne, Jr. writes, “All of Tuesday’s portents were negative. In both Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans were energized and Democrats were indifferent….In Virginia’s GOP rural precincts, the places where Donald Trump is still a hero, voters surged to polling places in a tidal wave….Democrats, particularly young and Black voters, stayed away, making up a far smaller share of the electorate than they did a year ago….in the end, exit polling made clear, hostility to Biden mattered more than alarm over Trump….But McAuliffe cannot simply blame the president or a dithering Democratic Congress for failing to enact the president’s program in a timely way — even if they have much to answer for….McAuliffe will no doubt long regret 12 words that Youngkin played back again and again in advertising that blanketed the state: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”…It was a dismissive formulation that made it far harder for McAuliffe to push back against Youngkin’s demagogic attack on critical race theory, which is not taught in Virginia’s schools….McAuliffe was not wrong to describe Youngkin’s appeal as “a racist dog whistle.”….But Democrats and progressives need a much better answer to parental discontent….They also have to make a compelling argument for how schools can offer an honest accounting of the role of racism in American life that also honors the country’s achievements. They cannot continue to let Trumpists dominate this discussion….One thing Democrats should not do: tear themselves apart with arguments over critical race theory itself, a set of ideas far better debated in law schools and graduate schools than at school board meetings….Democrats would also be foolish to litigate whether moderates or progressives in Congress are most to blame for McAuliffe’s loss and the surprisingly weak showing of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in New Jersey. They must all take responsibility for the unconscionable delays in enacting the president’s program. So must Biden.”….Democrats must move swiftly to enact and defend the president’s program, and Senate Democrats cannot allow the filibuster to block action on voting rights, now a more urgent cause than ever. Republican state governments will continue to throw up roadblocks to voting — and Black voters who were key to Biden’s victory will not forgive the president or his party if they just walk away from the pivotal civil rights battle of our time.”

In Judy Woodruff’s interview on PBS, James Carville explained it this way: “Well, what went wrong is this stupid wokeness. All right? Don’t just look at Virginia and New Jersey. Look at Long Island, look at Buffalo, look at Minneapolis. Even look at Seattle, Washington. I mean, this defund the police lunacy, this take Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools, that — people see that….Some of these people need to go to a woke detox center or something. They’re expressing language that people just don’t use. And there’s a backlash and a frustration at that….Youngkin never ran any ads against Biden. And I think what he did is just let the Democrats pull the pin and watch the grenade go off on them….And we have got to change this and not be about changing dictionaries and change laws. And these faculty lounge people that sit around mulling about I don’t know what are — they’re not working….Who could even think of something that stupid? And they’re suppressing our vote. And I have got news for you. You’re hurting the party. You’re hurting the very people that you want to help….And Terry got caught up. He’s a good friend of mine. He’s a good guy. He got caught up in something national, and we have got to change this internally, in my view.”…There’s a ton of pent-up demand in this economy. I’m just not one of these people that thinks that we’re necessarily doomed in 2022….We could have a roaring economy. This Build Back Better is going to give people a lot of confidence.And as long as we talk about things that are relevant to people and understand what they’re going through in their lives and get rid of this left-wing nonsense, this claptrap I hear, I think we can be fine….These people have got to understand they’re not popular around the country. People don’t like them. And they’re voting because that’s the only way that they can express themselves and how much they disagree with this….People don’t want to ride in the car with you. They don’t want to ride next to you in the subway….You’re annoying people. And they got to understand that. It’s very important….every Democrat wants to be a policy maven. No one wants to be a salesperson….Well, you got to get out there and sell your product and tell people what’s in it and quit worrying about being in the policy shop or being some self-important bureaucrat. That’s what I think.”

From Ronald Brownstein’s take on the elections at The Atlantic: “The Republican victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race and the unexpectedly close result in New Jersey’s—both states Biden won comfortably last year—don’t guarantee a midterm wipeout for Democrats in 2022. Rather, the sweeping Republican advance in both states more likely previews the problems Democrats will have next November if the political environment doesn’t improve for Biden….Glenn Youngkin, benefited from a huge gaffe by Democrat Terry McAuliffe that seemed to dismiss the role of parents in shaping their kids’ education. But above all, the results reinforced the conclusion that in modern U.S. politics, it’s becoming almost impossible for candidates to escape the shadow of attitudes about the incumbent president, for good or ill….Compared with Biden’s sweeping 2020 win, the exit polls did show Youngkin gaining ground with independents, college-educated white men, and especially white voters without a college degree, both men and women….Even with Youngkin’s marginal gains in the center, both the exit polls and actual results suggest instead that McAuliffe’s biggest problems were explosive turnout and huge deficits in the parts of the state most alienated from Biden and the Democrats who now control Washington. Turnout in Republican-leaning places was so strong that the share of the statewide vote cast by the blue-leaning big five Northern Virginia counties declined this year after steadily rising over the past three governor’s races….For the majority of Democratic elected officials and strategists, the most immediate lesson of Tuesday’s tough night is that the party needs to finally pass Biden’s economic agenda—which they hope will both assuage doubts about the president’s competence and provide them a list of tangible programs they can take to voters next year, including an expanded child tax credit and child-care subsidies and plans to lower prescription-drug prices.”

“Although public polling on immigration shows a strong shift to the left, survey responses in that vein mask a far more complicated reality, Thomas B. Edsall writes in his New York Times column. “Over and over again, immigration has proved to be politically problematic for Democrats. As far back as 2007, when he was chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rahm Emanuel warned that immigration had become the new “third rail of American politics.”….The reality of the politics of immigration stands in contrast to the more positive Gallup findings that the percentage of people describing immigration as a “good thing” grew to 75 percent in 2021 from 52 percent in 2001, and the percentage describing it as a “bad thing” fell to 21 percent from 31 percent. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of voters who say immigration should be increased grew to 33 percent from 10 percent, while the share who said it should be decreased fell to 31 percent from 43 percent. The percentage saying immigration levels should be left unchanged remained relatively constant over these two decades, ranging from the mid-30s to the low 40s.” Edsall quotes Ryan Enos, a professor of government at Harvard, who contends, “The question for the future of the broader consensus on immigration is whether Republicans can continue to be successful despite the anti-immigrant pandering that is largely out of step with the broad American consensus on immigration. If they are electorally successful — and there is reason to believe they will be, given forecasts for Democratic losses in 2022 — then this broad consensus might break down permanently and a large portion of the American public may follow their Republican leaders toward more fully adopting anti-immigrant ideology.”

Painful Lessons for Dems from VA and NJ

From “8 takeaways from the 2021 elections” by Eric Bradner, Gregory Krieg and Dan Merica at CNN Politics:

“Youngkin drafted a playbook for Republicans to navigate around Trump — keeping the former President’s base energized while also winning back a share of suburbanites who had fled the party during Trump’s tenure….[Youngkin] tapped into the brewing culture war over education. He appealed to conservatives steeped in the right-wing media ecosystem by promising to ban critical race theory, which isn’t taught in Virginia schools; to end coronavirus-related school shutdowns and mask mandates; and to launch an expansive charter school program. He also won over moderates by pledging an education budget with money for teacher raises — a core theme in his television ads — and special education….the pandemic appears to be fading as a driving factor at the ballot box….McAuliffe went all-in on linking Glenn Youngkin to Donald Trump and it failed.”

The NJ governor’s race is still razor close as of this writing, but it shouldn’t be. Youngkin’s 2.5 percent margin of victory in VA could get just a little bigger or smaller, when the last votes are counted.

When the margin is that small, you can blame a host of factors, including the BBB and infrastructure circus, Biden’s tanking approval ratings, Youngkin’s impressive campaign skills, McAuliffe’s stale candidate persona, inflation, weak Democratic GOTV, or some combination thereof. Some of those factors likely hurt Democratic Gov. Murphy in NJ as well.

But there’s no denying that the Youngkin campaign skillfully deployed a duplicitous, but effective attack  on “critical race theory,” their code for a ‘don’t guilt-trip today’s white school kids for the racism of the past’ message. We will likely see more of it in upcoming campaigns. Democrats have to develop a better response, including a more effective attack strategy of their own.