Learning the Right Lessons

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Politicians, like generals, often look backward for guidance rather than to the future. Just as generals, as the saying goes, always fight the last war, politicians tend to take the perceived lessons from the last campaign as inspiration for the next one. Democrats and Republicans alike are pouring over the results of last Tuesday’s election to glean nuggets upon which to base strategy for the 2022 midterm elections.

But, are they drawing the right lessons?

No one elected Biden to be the second coming of FDR

Virginia Democratic Representative Abigail Spanberger said of President Joe Biden after the election: “Nobody elected him to be FDR, they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.” Spanberger is a two-term member of Congress from Virginia. In 2018, Spanberger defeated David Brat, an ultra-conservative Republican incumbent, to become the first Democrat to represent her district since 1971. She is understandably nervous about her political fortunes in a district that Biden carried narrowly but which voted for Donald Trump for president in 2016 and which Glenn Youngkin won handily in his victory in last week’s gubernatorial election.

Spanberger is wrong historically and politically. Nobody in 1932 elected FDR to be FDR! Those who voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not have any inkling of the scope and extent of the New Deal. Roosevelt ran a cautious campaign, partly because he and his advisers did not fully understand the structural causes of the Great Depression and had not yet fully developed plans to combat the economic catastrophe. Also, Roosevelt realized how unpopular Herbert Hoover, the incumbent was, so he said little of substance, hoping to not commit any gaffes.

Politically, Spanberger is wrong. Now, it is possible that Democrats in Spanberger’s district played down Biden’s progressive agenda, but in deep blue parts of the country voters knew exactly for whom they were voting. Biden’s campaign was not shy about touting guaranteed family and medical leave, lower cost prescription drugs, universal preschool, free community college, expanded broadband, and a vigorous attack on climate change. 

In other words, all the progressive measures in the Build Back Better Bill were part of Biden’s campaign. 

The 2021 election was a defeat for progressivism

Maybe! But, it is also possible to look at the results and conclude that Republican gains came because of Democratic dithering in Washington. After all, the infrastructure package passed Congress after Election Day, and Democrats are still struggling to enact the Build Back Better Act. Terry McAuliffe, the defeated Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, begged Democrats in Washington to “get their act together” and pass Biden’s agenda. 

Would it have made a difference? Who knows? But, this we do know: Individual parts of the Biden program are very popular with voters. Passage of most of the president’s agenda, coupled with a vigorous campaign to inform voters that Democrats are legislating on their behalf (yes, working on behalf of their constituents — what a novel idea!), might have an impact next November. Part of that campaign must be to highlight the contrast between Democrats and their do-nothing Republican opponents. After all, former President Donald Trump kept promising an “infrastructure week,” but it never happened. Democrats passed a significant infrastructure bill a “mere” 11 months into Biden’s presidency. 

Democrats must compete for the rural vote

Yes, the urban-rural vote divide is real and getting worse for Democrats. And, yes, Democrats should be competitive in all demographic and geographic groups and areas. But, it is easy to over-analyze the Virginia results.

Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin outperformed Donald Trump’s 2020 showing in even the reddest counties, winning rural Virginia counties by record margins. But, that is not the whole story of the Virginia election. McAuliffe won voter-rich Fairfax County, a Washington suburb, by 30 points. Biden beat Trump in Fairfax by 42 points. Same in Loudon County, which Biden carried by 25 points in 2020, but McAuliffe won by only 11. 

The lesson here? The rural vote should be contested, but McAuliffe lost in 2021 because he bled suburban voters.

Youngkin won because he handled Trump correctly

Yes, Youngkin ran a smart campaign, cleaving close enough to the discredited former president so as not to alienate Trump’s base, but keeping Trump far enough away in order to lure moderate suburban voters. But, it takes two to tango, and Youngkin’s strategy worked because Trump cooperated, staying out of Virginia and not saying anything too damaging. Will the irrepressible former president cooperate in 2022? His track record indicates he will intervene in many races.

Republicans should nominate moderates

Youngkin is hardly a moderate, but he ran a campaign that appealed to the particular concern of Virginia voters in 2021: Outrage over the teaching of race in public schools. This is an issue drummed up by conservatives who want to push so-called cultural issues over actual policies that benefit voters. In his campaign, Youngkin succeeded in avoiding some of the more damaging pitfalls that have torpedoed conservative Republicans in the past. (See Ken Cuccinelli, an ultra-conservative candidate who ran an unsuccessful race in 2013 against McAuliffe for governor of Virginia.)

Youngkin became the Republican nominee for governor by winning an unusual ranked-choice vote implemented by the Virginia Republican Party to prevent the nomination of a right-wing kook (again, see Ken Cuccinelli). But, the Virginia template will not be the electoral structure in other states. Much more likely will be primary battles in which ultra-conservative candidates try to outrun each other to the far right to please Donald Trump. Republicans who can win primaries may not be strong candidates in general elections (see Christine O’Donnell in Delaware in 2010, Todd Akin in Missouri in 2012, and Richard Mourdock in Indiana in 2012.)

Conclusion

There are valuable lessons to be learned from the 2021 off-year election. But, it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions. Besides, the electoral environment may be starkly different in 2022. The recovering economy may be booming by next November, thanks in part to implementation of the Biden agenda. Voters may be in the mood to reward Democrats for legislating on their behalf. 

Posted November 9, 2020