“It was a backlash against ‘critical race theory’ that doomed Democrats in the 2021 off-year elections and reshaped the political landscape for 2022.”
Not so fast. While Republican Glenn Youngkin demagogued the issue in his winning gubernatorial run in Virginia, right-wing efforts to recall school board members with the same sort of dog whistling fared poorly around the country.
“It was Terry McAuliffe’s bumbling campaign that cost Democrats the governorship of a blue state.”
Again, not so fast. McAuliffe’s bid for a second term as governor of Virginia was uninspired. But uninspired Democrats have won a lot of statewide elections in Virginia over the past decade. This time, Democrats suffered up- and down-ballot setbacks in that state, ran worse than expected in the New Jersey gubernatorial race, and lost a critical contest for state Supreme Court in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.
A comprehensive explanation for a deeply disappointing night in the first big test of Democrats’ fortunes since the 2020 election gave the party control over the White House and Congress must incorporate an understanding of emerging Republican strategies and failed Democratic responses. But it cannot neglect the fact that Democrats in Washington have bungled the past several months. Their failure to govern boldly—and effectively—has cost them dearly.
At least some Democrats recognized that reality, as the extent of their defeat set in. Looking out over a national landscape of “devastating losses and some races that never should have been this close,” Nevada Democratic Party chair Judith Whitmer said, “If we have learned anything at all tonight, it is that we cannot afford to under-deliver on our promises.”
When President Biden jetted off to Europe last week after announcing a “framework” for passing his “Build Back Better” plan that lacked the support of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—the wrench in the machine who keeps undermining his party’s legislative agenda—the message could not have been more damaging to Democratic prospects in key state races. Months of backroom negotiations still had not yielded success, and a failure of Democratic unity, as opposed to predictable Republican obstruction, was the big story out of Washington.
David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s winning campaign in 2008 and then suffered through the setbacks for Democrats in the 2010 midterms, surveyed the results from Tuesday night and warned that if the party’s leaders do not get their act together, the signal from November 2021 portends a “dark and bleak year for Democrats in 2022.” He’s right, and he’s not alone in that assessment.
“The lesson going into 2022 is that Democrats need to use power to get big things done for working people and then run on those accomplishments. Period,” explained the leaders of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, who are closely aligned with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. “Democrats won’t win simply by branding one opponent after another as a Trump clone, and then hoping to squeak out a razor-thin win. When Democrats fail to run on big ideas or fulfill bold campaign promises, we depress our base while allowing Republicans to use culture wars to hide their real agenda.”
There’s nothing wrong with blaming Manchin, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, and corporate-friendly “centrists” in the House Democratic Caucus for obstructing their own party. But that’s not a sufficient explanation for disappointing results on Tuesday or bleak prospects for next year.
Top Democrats in Washington continue to govern with a lack of urgency. Despite desperate pleas from Senate Budget Committee chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), President Biden and party leaders in Congress failed to use their bully pulpits to sell the Build Back Better plan to the American people with a bold awareness campaign that highlighted its transformative proposals to extend Medicare and Medicaid, provide paid family and medical leave, reduce prescription drug prices, and fight child poverty. Instead, they engaged in an endless round of behind-closed-doors bargaining with Manchin, Sinema, and others who demanded the abandonment of popular proposals that would make college affordable and save the planet.
Democrats needed to build popular momentum for bold action, which might have moved reluctant members of the Senate and House. But they didn’t do that with anywhere near the consistency and energy that was needed. They bet on negotiations that kept dialing back on their own agenda.
It was an approach that was guaranteed to depress enthusiasm on the part of Democratic base voters, leaving the party vulnerable in contests where it rejected dynamic progressive newcomers in order to run retread candidates like McAuliffe. It also left a space where Republicans could exploit old divisions with a new version of Richard Nixon’s divide-and-conquer “Southern strategy,” replacing racist dog whistling about school busing with racist dog whistling about “critical race theory.” The Republican strategy is predictably cynical, and it can be countered—as was proven in Wisconsin’s suburban Mequon-Thiensville school district, where parents countered a well-funded recall campaign with the facts about that cynicism and four incumbents retained their seats with almost 60 percent support.
A post-election analysis from a quartet of progressive organizations—Battle Born Collective, Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement, and United We Dream Action—summed the Democratic malaise up succinctly:
This was a controlled experiment for what NOT to do in 2022. This is what it looks like when Democrats get caught flat-footed and let Republicans dictate the terms of the debate by manufacturing a fake “education crisis.” It does not have to be this way. There is still time to adopt an inclusive economic message that crowds out racist dog whistles. There is still time to go on offense and fight for the very voters who powered Democratic victories in 2020.
This should be a wake up call for Democrats: Give people something to vote for or watch yourselves become the very thing they resoundingly vote against.
But will the wake-up call be heard? Will Democrats recognize that they have to start nominating dynamic and inspiring candidates rather than “safe” prospects who don’t turn out to be safe at all? Will they recognize that they must constantly be on the offense on behalf of a transformational agenda that they outline and then deliver upon? Will they figure out that voters expect results from the party in power, not excuses like, “Oh, gosh, the filibuster” or “Darn that Joe Manchin”?
Former Virginia US representative Tom Perriello has a suggestion for where to start. Noting a huge shift in voting by white women in Virginia—from narrowly supporting Biden in 2020 to backing Youngkin 57-43 in 2021—he tweeted: “Given huge loss of white women, maybe—just spitballing here—Dems should rethink dropping paid medical and family leave out of #BuildBackBetter.”
Perriello is right. Democrats are in power. They are supposed to get things done.
If they fail to govern, no matter how credible and sincere their excuses may be, they can’t expect to win elections.