After the 1994 congressional elections, Bill Clinton reoriented his administration to the center and saved his presidency. Mr. Biden should follow his lead, listen to centrists, push back on the left and reorient his policies to address the mounting economic issues people are facing. As a senator, he was a master at building coalitions; that is the leadership needed now.
This would mean meeting the voters head on with stronger borders, a slower transition from fossil fuels, a focus on bread-and-butter economic issues (such as the price of gas and groceries), fixes to the supply chain fiasco that is impacting the cost of goods and the pursuit of more moderate social spending bills. Nearly three in four voters see the border as a crisis that needs immediate attention. Moving to the center does not mean budging from core social issues like abortion rights and L.G.B.T.Q. rights that are at the heart of what the party believes in and are largely in sync with suburban voters. But it does mean connecting to voters’ immediate needs and anxieties. As Democrats found in the late ’90s, the success of the administration begets enthusiasm from the base, and we actually gained seats in the 1998 midterms under the theme of “progress not partisanship.”
Mr. Biden’s ratings since the Afghanistan withdrawal have fallen from nearly 60 percent approval to just above 40 percent in most polls. By getting the physical infrastructure bill passed with Republican votes, Mr. Biden has taken a crucial step to the center (79 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans supported it in the Harris Poll). Follow that infrastructure success by digging into the pending congressional budget office analysis of Build Back Better and then look closely at bringing in more of the popular benefits for people (such as expansion of Medicare benefits for dental and vision and family leave) and cutting out some of the interest group giveaways like creating environmental justice warriors.
Of course, this may require some Houdini-like leadership to get votes from the Progressive Caucus for a revised Build Back Better bill. But this is the best strategy to protect Democratic candidates in 2022.
Yelling “Trump, Trump, Trump” when Mr. Trump is not on the ballot or in office is no longer a viable campaign strategy. Soccer moms, who largely despised Mr. Trump, want a better education for their kids and safer streets; they don’t see the ghost of Trump or Jan. 6 behind Republican candidates like now Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin of Virginia. Remember that only about one quarter of the country classifies itself as liberal, and while that is about half of the Democratic Party, the rest of the electorate nationally is moderate or conservative. While many rural and working-class voters are staying Republican, the message from last Tuesday is that the Democrats have gone too far to the left on key issues for educated suburban voters. Even Bergen County in New Jersey, a socially liberal bedroom community outside New York City, almost swung into the Republican column.
While Mr. Youngkin waded directly into racially divisive issues, he also based his campaign on positive messages of striving for excellence in the schools and for re-establishing the American dream as a worthy goal. Those messages tapped into the aspirations of voters in ways that in the past were at the heart of the Democratic message. These are enduring values, as is reaffirming the First Amendment and the power of free speech.
Demographics is not destiny. We live in a 40-40-20 country in which 40 percent are hard-wired to either party and 20 percent are swing voters, primarily located in the suburbs. After losing a game-changing slice of Midwestern working-class voters, who had voted for Mr. Obama, over trade, immigration and cultural policies, Democrats were steadily gaining in the suburbs, expanding their leads in places like New Jersey and Virginia. Without voters in these places, the party will be left with only too small of a base of urban voters and coastal elites. Unless it re-centers itself, the risk is that the Democratic Party, like the Labor Party in Britain, will follow its greatest success with an extended period in the desert.