Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 23 March 2022



Democrats Are Making Life Too Easy for Republicans

Credit...Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.

As the 2022 midterms draw into view, the question arises: To what degree are Democratic difficulties inevitable?

Ruy Teixeira, a co-editor of The Liberal Patriot, argues in an email that “the cultural left has managed to associate the Democratic Party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech and, of course, race and gender that are quite far from those of the median voter. That’s a success for the cultural left, but the hard reality is that it’s an electoral liability for the Democratic Party.”

Teixeira went on: “The current Democratic brand suffers from multiple deficiencies that make it somewhere between uncompelling and toxic to wide swaths of American voters who might potentially be their allies.”

In Teixeira’s view, many Democrats have fallen victim to what he calls the “Fox News fallacy.”

“This is the idea,” Teixeira said. “If Fox News criticizes the Democrats for X, then there must be absolutely nothing to X, and the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often.” He wrote, “Take the issue of crime. Initially dismissed as simply an artifact of the Covid shutdown that was being vastly exaggerated by Fox News and the like for their nefarious purposes, it is now apparent that the spike in violent crime is quite real and that voters are very, very concerned about it.”

In an analysis of the complexity of the current Democratic predicament, Sarah Anzia, a professor of public policy and political science at Berkeley, addressed the preponderance of urban voters in the Democratic coalition: “The Democrats have a challenge rooted in political geography and the institution of single-member, first-past-the-post elections.” Citing Jonathan Rodden’s 2019 book “Why Cities Lose,” Anzia argued that the density of Democratic voters in cities has both geographically isolated the party and empowered its most progressive activist wing:

They need to find ways to compete in more moderate or even conservative districts if they hope to have majorities of seats in the U.S. Congress or state legislatures. But large numbers of their voters are concentrated in cities, quite progressive and want the party to move further left in its policy positions — and not just on social-cultural issues.

Anzia contended that Democrats “have collectively staked out positions that have alienated certain supporters,” which is “related to the built-in challenge I just described.”

OPINION DEBATEWill the Democrats face a midterm wipeout?

The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer and fall of 2020, Anzia continued,

brought policing reform to the agenda in a way that it hadn’t been before, even after Ferguson, but suddenly the conversation jumped to “defund the police.” However one defines the specifics of what that should mean, I do think it sounded extreme and scary to a lot of people outside of places like Berkeley, Seattle, Minneapolis.

According to Anzia’s analysis, Democratic elected officials and teachers’ unions weakened the party by closing schools for in-person instruction for too long:

It made sense to have remote instruction early in the pandemic, but in many places, kids were in Zoom school until April of 2021 or even until the end of the academic year. Anyone could see that this was going to have some really negative consequences for kids.

Multiple studies, Anzia wrote,

show that this was more common — schools remained in remote learning longer — in more Democratic places with stronger teachers’ unions. This is an issue that affects people’s lives very directly. It handed Republicans an issue to run on.

Some experts in American elections make the case that Joe Biden was elected by voters seeking a return to regular order after the tumultuous Trump years but that instead of steering a moderate course, Biden sought to become a transformative president in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt — the problem being that because his party held razor-thin majorities in Congress, he lacked the mandate to do it.

Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton, wrote in an email that

the structural problem here is that Democrats’ success in winning unified party control in the Georgia Senate runoffs in 2021 hugely inflated the expectations of Democratic base voters about what could be achieved. At that time, it was even bandied about that Joe Biden was going to be the next F.D.R. Democrats passed a $3.5 trillion budget resolution that envisioned a transformational domestic policy agenda. But Democrats have not been able to deliver on most of these policy goals.

“Democrats,” Lee continued,

have not been able to achieve that unanimity on issues of critical importance to the party’s base: voting rights, Build Back Better, minimum wage, police reform. Democratic base voters are very frustrated and disappointed right now. Considering that the policy outcomes of trifecta control of national government have been so disappointing, it is hard to see how Democrats can fire up their base to turn out again. It is difficult to see anything changing on this front between now and the 2022 midterms.

Eric Schickler, a political scientist at Berkeley, described the most likely outcome of the 2022 elections as part of “a cycle of disappointment and recrimination” that not only has plagued Biden’s first two years in office but also dogged his two most recent Democratic predecessors — Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010.

The pattern:

Republicans provided unified opposition to Democrats’ agenda, Democrats struggled to corral all of their members behind their program, and the party’s own voters grew frustrated by the disappointing results compared to their expectations.

At the moment, there is widespread pessimism among those on the left end of the political spectrum. Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at Brookings, replying by email to my inquiry, wrote that for predictable reasons, “Democrats face an uphill battle in both 2022 and 2024.”


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But, she went on, “the problems are much deeper. First, the white working class that used to vote Democratic no longer does.” Sawhill noted that when she

studied this group back in 2018, what surprised me most was their very negative attitudes toward government, their dislike of social welfare programs, their commitment to an ethic of personal responsibility and the importance of family and religion in their lives. This large group includes some people who are just plain prejudiced but a larger group that simply resents all the attention paid to race, gender, sexual preference or identity and the disrespect they think this entails for those with more traditional views and lifestyles.

Messages coming from the more progressive members of the Democratic Party, Sawhill warned, “will be exploited by Republicans to move moderate Democrats or to move no-Trump Republicans in their direction.”

Sean Westwood, a political scientist at Dartmouth, is highly critical of the contemporary Democratic Party, writing by email:

Misguided focus on unpopular social policies are driving voters away from the Democratic Party and are mobilizing Republicans. Democrats used to be the party of the working class, but today they are instead seen as a party defined by ostensibly legalizing property crime, crippling the police and injecting social justice into math classes.

As a result, Westwood continued,

It is no surprise that this doesn’t connect with a working family struggling to pay for surging grocery bills. By abandoning their core brand, even Democrats who oppose defunding the police are burdened by the party’s commitment to unpopular social policy.

The traditional strategy in midterm elections, Westwood wrote, is to mobilize the party base. Instead, he contended, Democrats

have decided to let the fringe brand the party’s messaging around issues that fail to obtain majority support among the base. Perhaps the most successful misinformation campaign in modern politics is being waged by the Twitter left against the base of the Democratic Party. The Twitter mob is intent on pushing social policies that have approximately zero chance of becoming law as a test of liberalism. Even if you support reducing taxes on the middle class, immigration reform and increasing the minimum wage, opposing defunding the police or the legalization of property crime makes you an unreasonable outcast.

Along similar lines, John Halpin, who works with Teixeira as a co-editor of The Liberal Patriot, emailed to say that

the biggest problem ahead of the 2022 midterms is that voters don’t think Biden and the Democrats are focused on the issues that matter most to them. If you look at the most recent Wall Street Journal poll, Democrats are currently suffering double-digit deficits compared to Republicans on perceptions about which party is best able to handle nearly all of the issues that matter most to voters: for example, rebuilding the economy (–13), getting inflation under control (–17), reducing crime (–20) and securing the border (–26). Democratic advantages on issues like education are also down considerably from just a few years ago.

There are political analysts who differ strongly from Westwood and Teixeira in their critiques of Democratic strategy.

Will Bunch, a liberal columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, argues that Democrats should adopt a full-speed-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes approach. In a March 3 column, Bunch contended that the Reagan revolution of the 1980s still casts “a cloud of self-doubt over the Democratic Party” and that

party messaging largely remains dominated by reaction and fear rather than boldness. Those fears seem rooted in a panic that progressive values will be seen as less American — when the reality is that ideas like academic freedom, preventing censorship and a belief in inquiry, including science, are the core beliefs of this nation. It’s past time for President Biden and other leaders of the Democratic Party to approve this message.

I asked Bunch how a Democratic candidate should appeal to white working-class voters and socially conservative Black, Hispanic and Asian American voters. He replied by email:

The white working class is a much more diverse group than commentators from all sides tend to credit. Remember the large turnouts for Black Lives Matter marches in isolated Rust Belt and rural communities in 2020, for example, and many in the working class remain zealously pro-union. I think the greatest cause of resentment is lack of educational and related career opportunities that have shut out the working class of all races. The Democrats are philosophically wired to expand these opportunities — through free community college and trade school, for example — yet have failed to make these a priority, ensuring a continued sense that Dems are now the party of self-enlightened degree holders looking down on them. That cycle can and must be broken.

I also asked how a Democrat should counter Republicans who exploit critical race theory, defunding the police, affirmative action, transgender rights and other politically divisive issues.

Bunch replied:

It’s important to reframe the conversations, so that the debate about schools, for example, isn’t about critical race theory (a construction that’s only taught in law schools) but about book banning or blocking teachers from discussing even Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, which most voters in the vast middle vehemently oppose. Likewise, Democrats need to make clear that their goal is making streets safer and ending the heartbreak of homicide, but the way to do that is by thoughtfully building safer communities, not throwing more taxpayer dollars at failed methods of policing. The best strategy on affirmative action, at least in education, is to again make higher ed a public good and eliminate the current “Hunger Games” of college admissions.

Dan Froomkin, a media critic who writes at Press Watch, argued in an email that Republicans are using a collection of contrived issues with little substantive merit. On critical race theory, for example, he wrote:

It’s a phony issue. What far-right Republicans mean by “critical race theory” is that white children are being taught at public schools that they should be ashamed of being white. This is a made-up issue that serves as a stalking horse for inciting white grievance. Like so many of the far-right accusations against their opponents, it really couldn’t be less true. The reality is that public schools writ large don’t teach nearly enough about the sordid aspects of American history or culture, as you well know. As a press critic, I have been horrified at how credulously many political reporters have written about Republican lies — and how impressed they were at their alleged (but entirely unproven) effectiveness. They wrote about it as if it were a real problem, rather than an obvious, bad-faith attempt to manufacture white panic.

The prospect of Democratic losses in the House will have ideological consequences for both parties.

Halpin pointed out that the Democrats who lose seats in Congress in 2022 are certain to be disproportionately drawn from the moderates who face the most difficulty winning re-election in purple districts:

If the Democrats get clobbered this fall, it will mostly be frontline members — those who are more moderate and centrist — who lose their seats, thus paving the way for a minority Democratic Party to become even more left wing. This would be a disaster for Democrats, but no one in the party seems willing to confront it.

Matt Bennett, the executive vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, cited a major difference now compared to past midterm elections, writing in an email:

Republicans at every level are openly plotting to steal the presidency in 2024, as we detail here. An essential element of their plot is winning control of Congress. That means the future prospects of both the Democratic Party and American democracy could be severely damaged by a loss in 2022.

The congressional Republicans, Bennett continued,

who stood up to Trump’s assault on democracy now number in the single digits, and most of them are retiring or likely to lose in primaries. The candidates who would give them their majorities are, almost to a person, fully committed to the big lie that Trump won in 2020. Almost all have run on a set of authoritarian messages that include fear of the mythical deep state, disregard for constitutional and legal protections (other than the Second Amendment) and contempt for vital norms of governing. Worst of all, they have committed themselves to unyielding support for Donald Trump, who has staked his entire postpresidency and comeback effort on an assault on voting. Putting his acolytes in charge of Congress could send us careening toward the cliff, endangering the future of the world’s oldest and sturdiest democracy.

Bennett warned:

While the economy continues to impact voter behavior most, Republicans have been able to weaponize culture war issues in ways that significantly damage Democrats. In a major retrospective on the 2020 congressional elections that Third Way ran along with the Collective PAC and Latino Victory Fund, we found that Republican attempts to brand Democrats as radicals worked devastatingly well. Of the 12 House Democratic freshmen who lost last cycle — on a ticket with a winning presidential candidate — all were seriously hurt by culture war attacks.

This Democratic liability has become acute as politics have become nationalized, making all Democrats pay a price for what a small but prominent group pushes for:

Members of Congress on the far left have taken a series of positions — like defunding the police, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, closing federal prisons, decriminalizing border crossings, etc. — that are politically toxic in swing districts. It is no longer the case that what happens in a deep blue district, where these kinds of ideas might be more palatable, stays there. The fact is that these kinds of ideas and slogans do create a perception among swing voters that Democrats are outside the mainstream.

John Lawrence, who served as an aide in the House for 38 years, including eight as chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi, is the kind of party strategist hardly anyone outside Washington has heard of but who is exceptionally knowledgeable about the state of American politics.


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Lawrence replied by email to my inquiry:

I think a lot of voters will use 2022 to remind Biden (and Democrats, since they can’t vote against him) that their vote in 2020 was a vote to return to normalcy, not a blank check to build on the New Deal and Great Society. Once in office — albeit with ridiculously narrow margins — Democrats used the crisis to swing for the stands, ignoring the historical lesson of the Senate’s moderating role. So they have created the worst of all worlds: a failure to enact what the base demanded (but they did not have the votes to deliver) and the appearance of having overreached and invited an electoral haircut by many 2020 supporters who never embraced such a sweeping agenda.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine makes the future highly uncertain not only in Europe but throughout the world. Similarly, if less violently, the state of the economy, inflation and the trajectory of Covid are fuel for dissension and remain unpredictable.

The historical pattern of midterm contests suggests that a rejection of the party in power is the customary order of business. But the consequences of a Republican takeover of the House or of both branches of Congress are unlikely to be routine. What we can be sure of is that the Democrats can’t go on forever with this much of a gulf between what the majority of progressive party activists think the party should stand for and what the majority of Americans think it should.

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