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Opinion | Democrats Are Making Life Too Easy for Republicans

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 co-editor of The Liberal Patriot, emailed to say that

The biggest problem ahead of 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 St. 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 contends 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,” “defund the police,” affirmative action, transgender 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 M.L.K. 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, Froomkin 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 points 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, 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 post-presidency 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 ICE, 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.

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 off-year, 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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