Talking Points

The San Francisco recall is the left's 3rd strike

There's a joke among journalists that one example is an anecdote, two are a trend, and three are a story. By that standard, the recall of three San Francisco school board members last night is not an isolated incident. After the unsuccessful referendum to replace the Minneapolis police department and the election of Glenn Youngkin as governor of Virginia, a pattern is becoming clear. Voters do not like the combination of administrative incompetence, ideological enthusiasm, and political indifference that characterizes the left-wing of the Democratic Party.

Each situation has local particularities. In broad strokes, though, they have much in common. In each case, voters rejected challenges to respected if imperfect local institutions: selective schools in San Francisco and Virginia, the police department in Minneapolis. In each, they blamed progressives for emphasizing anti-racist symbolism at the expense of basic services. Officials and candidates in all three situations, finally, alienated all but their most devoted allies by dismissing all criticism as intolerance, racism, or even terrorism. In San Francisco, where Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton (who was not on the ballot) described the recall as driven by "closet Republicans and most certainly folks with conservative values in San Francisco, even if they weren't registered Republicans."

Much as the outcome will delight conservatives, however, it's important to recognize that these contests are mostly internal to the Democratic Party. Especially in major metro areas, where consistent Republican voters are thin on the ground, they pit self-proclaimed social justice activists against still very liberal but comparatively pragmatic figures such as San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

In addition to ideological considerations, there are structural reasons that mayors and governors tend toward moderation. Subject to heightened media scrutiny and elected in relatively high-turnout contests, they need to appeal to a broader constituency than candidates in more obscure races, where a small number of highly motivated supporters can make an enormous difference. 

With Democrats already facing a challenging political environment, their performance in the midterms will depend partly on whether they're able to distance themselves from left-wing positions that can play well with local ideologues and in academic circles but turn off broader constituencies. According to internal polling reported by Politico, Democrats should defuse attacks by expressing support for law enforcement promoting policies that address concrete needs rather than vague moral reform. At the local level, mayors like Breed, New York's Eric Adams, and even Portland's Ted Wheeler have already taken some steps in that direction.

The problem is that words aren't enough — Democrats need to give voters reasons to believe them. If the results of last night's recall are any indication, that kind of trust is a long way off.