Opinion

Democrats: This is no time to panic

Democrats suffered serious setbacks last night and will likely lose in 2022. Stay the course.

Democrats suffered serious setbacks in Tuesday's elections. In Virginia, where President Biden won by 10 points last year, Terry McAuliffe lost narrowly to Republican Glenn Youngkin in the governor's race. In New Jersey, where Biden won by 16 points, it seems Democrat Phil Murphy will likely pull out a squeaker of a victory to be re-elected as governor, but, remarkably, at time of writing, it's too close to call.

Democrats are downcast and pointing fingers, doing their usual post-defeat exercise of deflecting blame. That's often unwise, but especially now. If I had to bet, my money is on Democrats getting creamed in the midterms. And, against my colleague David Faris, I don't think there's all that much they can do about it. The only way forward is to pass their agenda in as good a form as possible and hope national conditions improve.

It's worth taking a moment to examine what happened. The best I can muster are a few hazy suspicions, and those should be taken with a large grain of salt.

One relevant factor is that Biden is quite unpopular — one of the least popular presidents in polling history at this point in his presidency, not far from where Trump was in 2017. McAuliffe and Murphy ran very different campaigns, yet both did about equally poorly relative to Democrats' performance in their states in 2020. (McAuliffe tried to cast Youngkin as a Trump stooge, while Murphy mostly ran on a record of accomplishment.) Dissatisfaction with Biden's presidency, then, seems plausible as a root cause of both campaigns' troubles.

Biden's bad numbers, in turn, surely have something to do with the broader state of the country. The pandemic isn't over; many schools are still closed or only partly open; and there are various economic difficulties — moderate inflation, labor shortages, supply chain problems — increasing voter frustration. Biden can't magically fix all that, but he's getting a lot of the blame. Furthermore, the mainstream media has been savaging Biden for not prolonging the occupation of Afghanistan, and the last several months of political coverage have been dominated by interminable and morale-sapping congressional negotiations over passing his agenda.

Another important factor is the power of the right-wing propaganda apparatus. As Eric Levitz writes at New York, if we forget about Trump and the history of the last five years, Youngkin's victory looks completely ordinary. An unpopular president plus off-off-year elections means the non-incumbent party tends to win. Evidently that's still true now, which is to say: The GOP has paid no price for nominating and electing a nakedly corrupt buffoon who horrendously botched the response to the pandemic, then continuing to support him after he tried to overturn his re-election loss.

Here's where that propaganda machine comes in. Swing voters plainly don't believe that virtually all Republicans are Trump lickspittles plotting to overturn democracy (though I submit they are). That made it possible for the Virginia campaign, for example, to be dominated by an openly astroturfed and wholly fake moral panic over "critical race theory" supposedly being taught in schools (it isn't), because that's what conservative noisemakers blared about for months. After national factors like the pandemic, this deception is a crucial factor in Democrats' downturned fortunes.

That brings us back to my pessimism about Democrats' chances next year. The state of the pandemic and the economy aren't directly under Democrats' control. And on the propaganda front, Democrats can't silence the right-wing machine, nor do they have a comparable means to influence the average, not-very-online voter. Their standard strategy of complaining when The New York Times doesn't deliver their message — when it isn't bending over backwards to appease and whitewash the far right — is plainly inadequate. Building a vast messaging apparatus would take longer than a year if Democrats were interested in doing so, which they aren't.

So if I were a Democratic political strategist, I would recommend three things: One, pass the Biden agenda in the best possible form — hopefully with some of the economic capacity elements included to cut down on inflation — and as soon as possible. This would get some kind of accomplishment on the board and end the humiliating media coverage. (If the party flips out, passes nothing, and spends the next year hiding under the bed, defeat is guaranteed.)

Two, pass voting rights protections to make Republican cheating harder.

Finally, pray to every god in the book that the party gets lucky. Campaigns are important, and Democrats should do as much as they can. But the results in Virginia and New Jersey demonstrate no candidate can compensate for wretched conditions on the ground.

Thus the need for luck — and courage. It's not impossible that, by this time next year, the pandemic will have eased, the economy will be booming, and Biden will be popular again. This is a chaotic, unpredictable time. Grim determination can make up for a lot.

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