Win More

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

What is most interesting about Governor Greg Abbott’s agenda for the special session of the Texas state legislature is not what it includes, but what it does not. There is no proposal to fix the state’s electric grid, which broke down during a storm this past winter with deadly results, leaving millions of Texans without power. The system also has been stressed during the current hot summer. But, instead of insuring that Texans have heat in cold weather and air conditioning in hot, Abbott and his fellow Republicans would rather legislate against the alleged teaching of critical race theory in schools and pass stringent voting restriction and nullification measures to guard against nonexistent electoral fraud.

Texas Republicans are not outliers when it comes to questions of public policy. Republicans everywhere are railing against critical race theory that is not taught anywhere, alleged censorship of conservatives on social media platforms, supposed cancel culture, and imagined electoral fraud while promulgating the “Big Lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election. What Republicans are not doing is proposing any measures that would improve the lives of Americans. 

The Republican strategy provides Democrats with both a problem and an opportunity. The problem for Democrats is that these cultural issues often resonate with voters, especially those in the electorate that comprise the Republican base. Cultural issues have particular import in mid-term and off-year elections when voter turnout tends to be lower than in presidential election years and when highly motivated voters — such as those susceptible to the “Big Lie” — are more likely to cast ballots. 

The opportunity for Democrats is that by pushing an agenda that improves the lives of all Americans — offering free or low-cost college education, curtailing child poverty, expanding Medicare and providing healthcare for more people, building new roads and bridges and fixing those in bad repair, and more — the party’s candidates might just swamp their opponents at the ballot box. But, not only do Democrats have to get most, if not all, of their agenda through a closely divided Congress, they then must convince the electorate that their policies are beneficial and Democrats must rally their supporters to go to the polls in massive numbers. In other words, Democrats must defeat Republicans by such awesome electoral numbers that Republican cheating — in the form of voter suppression and nullification laws — will not succeed. Of course, hypothetically, if Republicans are so brazen as to nullify massive Democratic majorities, then there is little Democrats can do. 

This strategy assumes that Democratic on-the-ground organizing will be sufficient to overcome Red-state chicanery. So far, President Joe Biden has benefited from a booming economy and his administration’s success in getting millions vaccinated. Further, the child tax credits contained in the stimulus bill are starting to be sent to eligible Americans, putting money in the pockets of people who need it. But, inflation looms as a potential problem. And, so far, Biden’s impressive policy achievements do not seem to be benefitting him politically. The president’s approval rating is relatively high, but it is stuck at virtually the same number as at the start of his term in January.

Biden and his team seem to have signed on to the strategy of what might be called “win more.” Biden’s reliance on it may explain his slowness in arguing vociferously for congressional passage of the comprehensive voting overhaul measure. Even when he came out strongly for the bill’s enactment in his speech in Philadelphia this week, Biden never called for eliminating the filibuster, a prerequisite to passage of new voting laws in Congress. There can be little question that Biden is genuinely distressed by Republican voter suppression measures, but it is also probably true that the president does not want to waste political capital on a fight — eliminating the filibuster — he cannot win.

The “win more” strategy is risky. The biggest gamble of all is the assumption that Biden will get most of his agenda through Congress. Perhaps, but Joe Biden cannot be Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Lyndon Baines Johnson for one simple reason: The current president lacks his predecessors’ massive congressional majorities. In 1933, FDR had a 59-vote majority in the Senate and three-to-one edge in the House. LBJ was not quite as fortunate. But, still, the Senate in 1965 had 69 Democrats in it and the House 295. Biden is stuck with an evenly divided Senate and a minuscule Democratic majority in the House. Moreover, both FDR and LBJ had Republican allies, but in today’s highly polarized political environment, Republican cooperation is doubtful at best. 

Democrats know they have to out-organize Republicans to have a chance at political victory. That is a daunting task because the political fight between the two parties is uneven. The Supreme Court’s validation of two Arizona election laws encourages Republicans to be even more aggressive in enacting voter suppression laws in Red states. The recent decision provides Republican legislators with a road map for their Jim Crow-like legislation, and the high court’s ruling suggests that future litigation to stop similar Republican legislation will not succeed. 

The fact is that the system is stacked in favor of Republicans. The Electoral College gives Republicans a huge advantage in presidential elections in ways not readily apparent. Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, but two Republican “losers” became president by winning a majority of electoral votes. More importantly, Democrats win presidential popular votes by piling up massive majorities in California and New York. As Politico notes, Hillary Clinton’s three-million vote majority in 2016 came entirely from California, and Biden’s seven-million vote victory in 2020 from California and New York. These are mostly “wasted” votes that do not help Democrats win either the presidency or down ballot races. Another unfair element is the notoriously undemocratic Senate, where small, in population, Wyoming has the same number of votes in the upper chamber as population-rich California.  

As fraught as the “win more” strategy is, the Democrats may have little choice but to hope that it succeeds. Given the structural advantage Republicans possess and given Republican ruthlessness in manipulating the rules — from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s successful attempt to stack the courts with conservatives to the wave of new voter suppression laws — Democrats are left with few weapons other than traditional, popular appeals to pocketbook issues.

Democrats everywhere must emulate Stacey Abrams’ successful organizing to get out the vote and turn Georgia blue in the last election. It may be all that prevents further Republican assaults on constitutional norms and wholesale destruction of our Republic.

Posted July 16, 2021

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