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Democrats Need to Get Better at Politics—Fast

The stakes are too high for them to blow it.
April 5, 2022
Democrats Need to Get Better at Politics—Fast
(Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a bit of a family debate at The Bulwark regarding what Democrats should do to improve their electoral prospects. Some of us join Democrats like Ruy Tuxiera of the Liberal Patriot and William Galston and Elaine Kamarck in the belief that if Democrats want to climb out of the hole they’re in, they should disabuse themselves of several myths, such as that people of color will reliably vote D or that turnout is the magic bullet, and pivot hard to the center.

Others disagree. Observing yet another Big Lie-proselytizing, Ivermectin-hawking, full-on Trump cultist running for office—this time for Wisconsin attorney general—Jonathan V. Last marvels that “somehow the problem is Democrats being out of step?” Why, he asks, does no one ever say “Republicans Have to Stop Acting Crazy or Voters Will Punish Them?”

It is a challenge of our time that one party—or at least a significant chunk of it—has become deranged. Many Republicans believe that the 2020 election was stolen, that COVID restrictions were fascism, that January 6 was a false flag operation by the “deep state,” and so on, and yet it is the Democrats who are perceived as out of the mainstream. How can that be? The majority of the country believes in none of those demented ideas, and in normal times, the very craziness of the GOP would repel voters.

But as Last concedes, when voters are dissatisfied with the state of things, they punish the party in power. That benefits the out party almost without regard to the nature of that party. The GOP is currently the only “not Democrat” party (or the only one that counts—sorry Libertarians and Greens), and therefore it is seeing gains as Biden’s popularity sags. The Democratic party is now regarded more negatively (55 percent) than the GOP (51 percent).

This may be bad news for the health of democracy, but it is understandable as a matter of electoral politics. Why? Because Democrats have forgotten what they grasped in 2020 when they united behind Joe Biden: the overriding obligation to win. That’s right—not to pass generational reforms, not to save the planet, but just to govern in a fashion that prevents the Q-Anon-indulging, Putin-friendly, truth-optional, insurrectionist party from returning to power.

In order to win, not just in 2022 but for the next several cycles or however long it takes for Republicans to regain their sanity, Democrats must prioritize broadly popular policies, they must tell the voters what they’re doing, and they must hang the crazy around Republicans’ necks.

It isn’t that Democrats have done nothing popular. They just haven’t advertised it. In fact, they’ve buried it. Included in the American Rescue Plan (which was too big and probably contributed to inflation, but that’s a discussion for another day) was one policy that really was life-changing for many Americans—the child allowance. This passed into law. Parents of 60 million of America’s 73 million children began receiving a monthly check from the IRS of $300 a month for young children and $250 a month for older ones. According to a Columbia University study, child poverty in America declined by 40 percent during 2021 due to COVID-era spending and 25 percent of that reduction was due to the child allowance. Under Biden, child poverty reached its lowest rate in American history.

Have you heard about this dramatic accomplishment? President Biden mentions it from time to time, and it’s included in White House talking points. But it should have been shouted, broadcast, trumpeted, and crowed over. As Winston Churchill advised King George V when the latter had trouble getting his message across, “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.” Democrats should have crowed about how Republicans talk about being pro-family, but Democrats really delivered.

Sadly, the program has now lapsed, a victim of Democratic infighting. Perhaps if Democrats had boasted properly, it wouldn’t have died.

Nor have Democrats talked up the good economic numbers. With the exception of the inflation rate, the economic story is remarkably good. The unemployment rate dropped from 6.2 percent when Biden took office to 3.9 percent today. Skeptics might attribute that mostly to the waning of COVID, but that shouldn’t stop politicians from bragging. They get blamed for things they aren’t responsible for, so they might as well take credit for things they didn’t really affect. Hiring is robust, wages are rising, unemployment is low, and the Dow is at 35,000.

How about that bipartisan infrastructure bill? All of the lead pipes in America are going to be replaced, saving God knows how many kids from brain damage. The legislation will begin the important process of mitigating the effects of climate change by building dykes, dams, and other infrastructure. It will repair roads, bridges, and airports, and do much more. Have you heard about it? My guess is hardly at all and then only in reference to Democratic infighting over whether the “physical” infrastructure bill was going to be held hostage to the “human infrastructure” bill they were also considering in 2021.

The story of Biden’s first year-and-a-half could have been about the robust recovery, the dramatic support for struggling parents, and the passage of the much-overdue infrastructure plan. Instead, the message from the Democrats in Washington was that Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema were traitors and enemies who stood in the way of a bill that was never described in any way except as a price tag. A bunch of progressives wanted to spend another $2 trillion and Manchin and Sinema thought it was a bridge too far. Since most Americans are probably ideologically closer to Manchin and Sinema than to Bernie Sanders or Pramila Jayapal, the message they received was that the Democratic party was not representing them. Ninety percent of the attention has gone to what Democrats were (unrealistically) shooting for rather than what they achieved. So they drowned their own accomplishments in a miasma of recriminations.

Nor have Democrats competently pushed back on “defund the police” and “abolish ICE” and other left-wing slogans that Republicans have employed to great effect to tar their whole party. Yes, President Biden has proposed $32 billion spending on police training and crime prevention. And yes, he had a good one-liner in his State of the Union address. “Don’t defund the police. Fund the police.” He said it three times. Well done. But it should have been said 3000 times, and not just by Biden but by Kamala Harris and his cabinet members and leaders in Congress and surrogates of every kind. They needed a bullhorn or Churchillian pile driver on that issue.

They used to be better at this.

As someone who was on the other side for decades, I well recall that when Paul Ryan supported a plan that would permit Americans to funnel up to 40 percent of their Social Security taxes into private retirement accounts that would earn higher returns and be heritable by heirs, interest group ads depicted him as a ghoul who was willing to wheel granny off a cliff . I also recall the libelous ads run against George W. Bush in 2000 that falsely suggested he was soft on lynching. And the Obama campaign commercial that falsely pinned responsibility for a woman’s cancer death on Mitt Romney’s firm.

All of that was scurrilous and I would never—truly never—suggest that Democrats lie about Republicans. But why can they not tell the truth?

Rick Scott, chairman of the Republican National Senatorial Committee, is out with a plan that explicitly calls for raising taxes on 57 percent of American households. According to his plan, “All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount. Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax.” Could Democrats make something of that? And if not, what are they doing in politics?

Democrats have bickered over voting rights bills, focusing on trivialities like the number of days of early voting or whether an absentee ballot application had to be requested or should just be mailed to everyone. That’s nothing. The real threats are elsewhere, such as Republican proposals to make honest mistakes by election officials subject to criminal penalties. That’s intimidation and goes to the heart of fair election administration. Further, it’s inexplicable that Democrats have not used their slim majorities in Congress to reform the Electoral Count Act, whose ambiguity makes election stealing easier than it needs to be. If they need a refresher, the American Law Institute has just put out a blueprint.

Finally, at least one reason that Democrats are perceived to be out of the mainstream is that the right-wing information ecosystem relentlessly “nut picks” the most outlandish things any Democrat says or does and magnifies it out of all proportion. They also lie incessantly. And it has an effect. Like toxic sludge, it seeps out of the realm of talk radio and Fox and Facebook and convinces even people in the middle that Democrats are too extreme.

By contrast, Democrats have utterly failed to elevate the profiles of sinister figures like Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, or Lauren Bobert. These Putin-defending, white supremacist, malevolent creeps are rock stars among the far right, but virtually unknown to most Americans. Where are the Democratic ads pointing out that the way you get in trouble in today’s GOP is by standing up for the rule of law and the Constitution (see Cheney, Liz and Kinzinger, Adam), but not for attending a conference organized by a Holocaust-mocking white supremacist? We used to say “the ads write themselves,” yet the Democrats can’t seem to manage it.

Get better Democrats. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].