As Republicans were outperforming all expectations last night, President Biden was winging his way across the Atlantic from Glasgowliterally over the ocean, figuratively (both he and his party) at sea.
Virginia, at least, was understandable. Terry McAuliffe was yesterdays man, a Clinton-era relic to be remembered chiefly for making the biggest debate gaffe since 1976, when Republican President Gerald Ford bewilderingly declared that Poland was not really in the Soviet bloc. When McAuliffe told viewers of this falls gubernatorial debate that parents really had no business butting into their childrens schools, he opened the door for his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, to transform himself into the champion of all parents, and to air an ad featuring one aggrieved mom whod objected to her sons readings. (The ad failed to mention that this was in a senior-year AP English class, and the book was a Pulitzer Prize novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.) Youngkin also doubled down by decrying the adherence to critical race theory in Virginia schools, which is not taught in any K-12 school in the Commonwealth.
But give Youngkin credit. He walked the tightrope between rousing the Republicans Trumpified base and coming off as a fleece-wearing, non-crazy non-demagogue to the states suburban swing voters. He accepted Trumps endorsement and promptly steered clear of Trump. If I may lapse into California analogies, he was a Schwarzenegger, not an Elder.
In Californias recall election this September, in which Democrat Gavin Newsom shellacked Republican Larry Elder, Newsom had the luxury of running against a far more Trumpian Republican than Youngkin. Elder came to the race after three decades as a far-right radio talk show host. What was remarkable about Newsoms victory was not that he won handily, but that his margin of victory was almost identical to his margin when he was elected in 2018, with just as high turnout.
Yesterdays upset wasnt really Virginia; it was New Jersey, regardless of who ultimately wins.
Like Schwarzenegger, Youngkin had the good fortune of avoiding a Republican primary, being nominated instead in a convention of party elites. (Schwarzenegger also avoided a primary by running in a one-and-done recall general election.) Had he faced a primary, he likely would have lost to a rival who could have claimed Trumps support, after affirming that hed actually won the 2020 presidential election. Alternatively, if Youngkin had been forced to agree with Trump to win the primary, he would likely have lost yesterday. Instead, running as a throwback country club Republican, Youngkin paved the way for blue counties to flip to red and Democratic exurbs and some suburbs to turn Republican.
(Youngkin, a former private equity tycoon, certainly had his own vulnerabilities. But McAuliffe couldnt rerun Barack Obamas successful semi-populist 2012 campaign against Mitt Romney, because he actually owned shares in the Carlyle Group, where Youngkin was previously co-CEO.)
Yesterdays upset wasnt really Virginia; it was New Jersey, regardless of who ultimately wins (as I write, Republican Jack Ciattarelli holds a very narrow lead over incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, with mostly left-leaning precincts left to count). This was a race that both Democrats and Republicans expected Murphy to win handily, and Murphy had a lead in the low double digits in most of the polls. (Ciattarelli led in precisely none.) This was not a race that excited a lot of interest or received extensive media coverage. I very much doubt most of the states voters could pronounce the name Ciattarelli, let alone know much about him.
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Rather, this was a vote about the sense of drift and anxiety that Old Surehand Biden had been expected to dispel. Both New Jersey and Virginia went to the polls with the presidents approval at its lowest point yet, barely above 40 percent. And surely, the same disappointment and displeasure displayed toward the president also extends to the Democratic (if tenuously so) Congress. Despite both states passing a healthy amount of popular liberal legislation the past few years, this perception about national Democrats weighed down their gubernatorial candidates.
Much of the mainstream media had a ready-made diagnosis for the blue teams blues last night: The Democrats were just too liberal. Cable news commentators, and not only on Fox, were saying that the Democrats had to distance themselves from the Squad (who havent actually been heard from for a number of months) and from the cause of defunding the police, though the Democrats in visible elected office whove actually called for defunding the police could fit into a phone booth, if phone booths still existed.
As the party of government, the Democrats cant afford to work in government time.
Thats not to say that there are anxieties out there that the Democrats have adequately addressed. Fear of violent crime has risen as the murder rate has risen dramatically in the last year. The triumph of former cop Eric Adams in New Yorks mayoral election, defeating in the Democratic primary a field of more liberal opponents, showed that fear registered particularly in working-class communities, which in most big cities are preponderantly minority. The defeat of the scrap-the-police-and-start-over ballot measure in Minneapolis yesterday made that clear; the polling that showed it was even more unpopular among the citys Black voters than with the overall electorate made it even clearer. (To be fair, an effort to increase police funding failed in Austin, Texas, while an effort to increase police oversight succeeded in Cleveland, where voters also chose progressive mayoral candidate Justin Bibb.)
Much of this anxiety is heightened by local TV newss reliance on crime stories for their ratings and by right-wing pols who play on these anxieties. Be that as it may, Democrats need to learn how to walk the walk on police reform, without which institutional racist violence will continue to be inflicted by nightsticks and guns, while also making clear that they support adequate and nonracist law enforcement. Having reported for decades on the systemic racist brutality of the LAPD, Im painfully aware of the limits of reform. But ceding law enforcement support entirely to the Republicans is a one-way ticket to political oblivion.
The centrist pundits, however, go well beyond criticizing the left on this issue and the host of other causes (some of them neologistic) with which the cultural left has bewildered most of their fellow Americans. Instead, pundits are now punditizing that if congressional Democrats had only passed the infrastructure bill, and if they would only scale back their social-infrastructure bill in coming days, all would be well.
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But is that really the Democrats problem? Or is it that they have dithered on the Biden agenda for endless months? And during those months, its not the proponents of the reconciliation bill that the public has been hearing from. The most voluble figure talking to Americans about the bill has been its leading critic, Joe Manchin, who discusses its affront to core laissez-faire beliefs, its supposed effects on inflation (though its key provisions would considerably reduce household expenses), and its ballooning of the national debt (though its largely paid for, as his infrastructure bill is not), while not discussing any of the bills actual contents.
Some of the midnight pundits even managed to argue both that the bill was sheer leftist excess and that it had contained such universally popular provisions as reducing drug prices, expanding Medicare, making child care affordable, and providing paid family leave (at least, it did until the Manchin Gang cut it back). Obviously comfortable with contradiction, these pundits egged on the moderates to continue to cut back such widely popular programs as the way to, well, win back their popularity.
My own take is that Bidens popularity, and the Democrats as well, has taken a dive precisely because theyve not been able to enact these widely popular proposals. At a time when Americans have expected action, theyve encountered drift and delay. In his victory speech early this morning, incoming Virginia Gov. Youngkin, touting his can-do spirit amid a flow of cheery platitudes, said, We work in real peoples time, not government time.
As the party of government, the Democrats cant afford to work in government time. What they need to do is not to further strip the reconciliation bill of more of its widely popular and long-overdue particulars, but to pass it and the infrastructure bill forthwith. After all, as the midnight pundits fail to understand, if the Democrats are to turn the public discussion away from the culture wars that Republicans wage precisely because they cant win wars of economic policy that lead to social cohesion, the main way Democrats can win back support is to enact measures like paid family leave and cheaper drug prices. If the Democrats cant figure out how to talk about the cops, the Republicans cant figure out how to deal with economic policies that benefit the many by taxing the few.
Swing voters, its clear from yesterdays elections, have had it with the Biden drift, with government time. A little action, some decisive initiatives, a show of mastery, my fellow Democrats, is what the nation needs, particularly if youre hoping to remain in power one year hence.