Tag Archives: Glenn Youngkin

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

 

Make It About the Economy, Stupid

It’s the economy, stupid. — James Carville, 1992, advising the campaign of presidential aspirant Bill Clinton. 

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Tuesday’s Democratic debacle was devastating. But, bad as the results were, they point a way forward for the party’s candidates to win in the 2022 midterms: Make it about the economy.

President Joe Biden knows the truth of this maxim. “I think we should produce for the American people,” Biden said the day after the election. The president was explaining the need to enact his agenda, which, he said, would improve the lives of millions of Americans. He would not say that failure to pass the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act hurt Democrats, particularly Terry McAuliffe’s campaign in Virginia to regain the governorship, but Democratic squabbling in Washington certainly left the impression of incompetence (thank you Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia!). 

Before Democrats go into full panic mode, they should take stock. Tuesday was awful, but not cataclysmic. Democratic Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey won reelection, albeit narrowly, in a reliably blue state. A progressive candidate, Michelle Wu, easily won the Boston mayoral race. Wu is a protégé of Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat. Eric Adams, a Democrat, won, becoming New York City’s second Black mayor. And, while McAuliffe lost in a state Biden carried by 10 points a year ago, Virginia almost always elects as governor a candidate from the opposite party of the president who won the previous year. 

Virginia was, of course, the big disappointment because the state has been trending blue. It may well be true that Virginia really is a purple state that looked blue only out of antipathy in recent years to former President Donald Trump. Certainly, the successful Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, managed the delicate balancing act of keeping Trump out of the state while sounding enough Trumpian themes to avoid angering the thin-skinned former president and Trump’s loyal base. Trump behaved, saying nice things about Youngkin and staying out of Virginia. Youngkin’s strategy frustrated McAuliffe, who tried unsuccessfully to argue that a vote for his opponent was a vote for the former president. 

But, will Youngkin’s strategy of keeping Trump at arm’s length work for other Republicans running for office in 2022? Probably not, because it is difficult to imagine that Trump will sit idly by in his lair at Mar-a-Lago while Republican congressional, senatorial, and gubernatorial candidates distance themselves from him. He managed the trick this time around with Youngkin, but I would not bet the ranch on him doing it again next year.

Youngkin’s handling of the disgraced former president is the first lesson Republican politicians and political pundits claim to have learned from the Virginia results. The second lesson is — supposedly — that cultural issues work to drive the base. Youngkin made education the centerpiece of his campaign, focusing on critical race theory and book banning. Those issues resonated to such an extent that Republicans think education should be at the forefront of issues next year.

The ever spineless Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, quickly got on board. “If the Virginia results showed us anything, it is that parents are demanding more control and accountability in the classroom,” McCarthy wrote in an election-night letter to his caucus. And, J.D. Vance, running in the Republican primary in Ohio for the Senate, channeled former President Richard Nixon, saying: “The professors are the enemy.” Parenthetical note: Vance has a law degree from Yale University. 

Will concerns over how race is taught in public schools work next year? Youngkin succeeded in using the teaching about the history of race relations in the United States as a dog whistle for fears surrounding White identity, but education does not travel well from the local arena to the national. For one thing, education is — and always has been — a local issue. Parents control education through local school boards, making public education perhaps the most democratic aspect of American society. And, historically, education is not a Republican issue. Voters usually trust Democrats to handle it better than Republicans. 

More importantly, there were educational concerns in the Virginia gubernatorial race that are particular to one state and one year. In addition to the highly publicized fears over race in the classroom, parents in Virginia were angry over last year’s closing of schools because of COVID-19 and riled about mask-wearing mandates. Those concerns may be ancient history by November 2022. Asian parents had worries over access to programs for gifted students, and Black parents were upset over teachers’ unions’ opposition to charter schools.  

I am not at all certain that Youngkin’s campaign provides a template for Republican candidates running for national office in 2022. I am certain, however, that Democratic success at the polls hinges on first producing results for the American people and then convincing voters of the value of those results while painting the Republicans as the “do-nothing” party. Let Republicans stick to the war on culture in lieu of economic policies that substantively improve voters’ lives.

People are nervous about the economy, which has recovered unevenly from its disruption during the depths of the pandemic. Gas prices are up, inflation fears loom, and breaks in the supply chain are a worry as the holiday shopping season begins. To allay anxiety, Democrats must quickly pass the Build Back Better Act, and then waste no time explaining its benefits to the public: Universal free preschool, child care for working parents, tax credits to families with children, expanded care for seniors, assistance to cash-strapped consumers shifting to clean energy, relief from the high cost of prescription drugs, improvements to the Affordable Care Act, and on and on. 

These are real benefits for working, middle-class Americans. It is a platform for Democrats to run on in 2022, contrasting Democratic-passed reforms with the do-nothing Republicans whose major accomplishment when Trump was president was a whopping tax cut for the very wealthy. And, part of next year’s campaign should be this: Elect more Democrats who will build on and strengthen these accomplishments.

Make it about the economy, stupid!

Posted November 5, 2021

Where Will It End?

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

First, they ban books; then, speech. Where does it end?

The modern Republican Party has launched numerous assaults in recent years on freedoms most Americans take for granted. The right to vote is under attack by Republicans doing the bidding of disgraced former President Donald Trump, who continues to push the “Big Lie” that he won the 2020 presidential election. Republican-controlled states have passed or are considering a plethora of laws restricting the right to vote and laying the groundwork for voter nullification.

In Virginia, Tuesday’s gubernatorial race hinges on Republican attempts to make critical race theory, which is not taught in the state’s public schools, an issue and attacks on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, written by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. Bogus so-called cultural issues are the Virginia Republicans’ answer for the party’s inability to grapple with substantive issues such as access to healthcare and repairing the state’s crumbling infrastructure. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee, would rather attack academic freedom than discuss the serious issues affecting Virginia voters. 

It is in Florida, though, where academic freedom is under the gravest threat today. Three University of Florida professors have been barred from assisting plaintiffs who are trying to overturn the state’s new restrictive voting law. According to a report in The New York Times, university officials told the educators that their testimony would not be in the university’s “interests.” Denying the teachers the right to testify is precedent-shattering. Like institutions of higher learning in most states, the University of Florida routinely has allowed academic experts to testify in court, even when that testimony runs counter to the interests of the political party in power. 

A spokesperson for the university told the Times that the school is not denying “the First Amendment right or academic freedom” of the professors. Rather, the spokesperson said, “The university denied the requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.” In other words, University of Florida employees are free to say whatever they want as long as what they say is not forbidden by the state of Florida. 

The three professors have filed a suit of their own challenging the school’s decision to bar them from testifying. In their suit, the teachers seek to question Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to find out if his office was involved in the university’s decision. DeSantis has staked his political ambitions on out-Trumping Trump by backing the voter suppression laws the state legislature has passed. He certainly has an interest in who testifies in the original suit challenging the state’s attack on voting rights. The United Faculty of Florida, a union representing faculty at the states’s public schools, tweeted, “Why would @GovRonDeSantis be afraid of experts?”  

This is scary stuff! Republicans are pushing wars on culture because they appeal to the party’s base and rev up voter enthusiasm. At least, that is the supposition, which will be tested in the Virginia governor’s race. Virginia has been trending blue, but polls show Youngkin pulling even with — or ahead of — Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is seeking a return to the governor’s office. 

A Youngkin victory would provide a template for Republicans running in the 2022 midterm elections. It would also give fresh impetus to attempts by Republican-controlled state legislatures seeking to pass laws restricting how teachers discuss racism, sexism, and issues of equality and justice in the classroom. More than half the states are considering or have considered legislation to control classroom curriculum. Many of the laws are designed to keep critical race theory out of schoolrooms. More fundamentally, they are an attempt to sanitize the teaching of American history. 

Teaching about the American past has motivated Republicans at the national level as well. Republicans in Congress have introduced legislation to cut federal funding for schools that base lessons on the “1619 Project,” a New York Times series that stresses the enduring legacy of slavery on American society. Representative Glenn Grothman, a Wisconsin Republican, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would direct teachers in District of Columbia public schools on how to discuss racism and sexism. 

The current attacks on academic freedom beg comparison with the early years of the Cold War. But, the current situation is worse than the McCarthyism of the 1950s. The Red Scare of those years marginalized dissent and encouraged conformity, but its promulgators did not attempt to influence classroom teaching or school curriculum. The McCarthyites went after supposed Communists with the goal of getting them fired from teaching posts. 

The nation’s schools and universities often complied, but their classrooms remained inviolate. This time around is different for one fundamental reason. In the 1950s, the supposed enemy was a foreign ideology pushed by a foreign adversary abetted by supposed accomplices at home. Today, the enemy is the American past.

Cleansing the past — insuring that students do not learn the more unsavory parts of American history — motivates those who feel their power threatened, politicians and the shrinking White electorate alike. The emphasis on influencing school curriculum combined with attacks on academic freedom raises a fundamental question: Where will it end?

Because where speech is censored and books are banned, books are then burned. Where books are burned, then people are burned. It could happen here!

Posted November 2, 2021

Glenn Youngkin vs. “Beloved”

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, apparently wants voters to think his opponent is a dead Nobel Prize-winning novelist. In the waning days of the race, Youngkin released an ad featuring a mother who tried to have Toni Morrison’s Beloved banned from her son’s 12th grade English curriculum eight years ago.

You read that right! Instead of focusing on issues that affect Virginians today — such as access to healthcare, crumbling infrastructure, and economic opportunity — Youngkin has dredged up a matter from nearly a decade ago. In the ad, the mother, Laura Murphy, complains about “some of the most explicit material you can imagine” that her son had to read. 

Now, to be clear, Beloved is hard to read. It is graphic, deliberately so. Morrison’s depiction of slavery is brutal for one reason: Slavery was a brutal institution, and Morrison did not shy from portraying the ways in which slavery destroyed the souls of both the enslaved and the enslaver. Beloved contains scenes of rape and sexual perversion because rape and sexual perversion were central to the history of enslavement. According to genetic studies, the average African American genome is about a quarter European. That genetic material is mostly a product of nonconsensual relationships. 

In the TV ad, Murphy said she lobbied to have the then Republican-controlled Virginia legislature pass a bill requiring schools to notify parents of “sexually explicit content” in subject matter taught to their children. The ad makes the legislation sound harmless, but as the National Coalition Against Censorship pointed out, “The bill is silent on what content would be labelled ‘sexually explicit.’” The organization suggested that the act’s vagueness might be used to ban most Shakespearean drama and such classics as Madame Bovary and The Canterbury Tales.

Youngkin’s ad does not, of course, mention that Murphy and her husband are Republican activists and that their son was a high school senior taking advanced placement English. Nor does it reveal that the son in question went on to work briefly in the White House under former President Donald Trump and is now an employee of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. 

So, what does this somewhat ancient history have to do with next week’s Virginia gubernatorial election? One thing: The legislation Murphy induced the state legislature to pass was vetoed twice by then-Governor Terry McAuliffe, who, this time around, happens to be Youngkin’s opponent. Youngkin, who desperately is trying to walk a tightrope regarding his relationship with Trump — staying close enough to the disgraced former president to avoid angering ardent Trumpistas, but far enough away to not antagonize independent voters in the voter-rich D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia — needs an issue that he hopes appeals to both groups.

McAuliffe helped Youngkin find that issue when the former governor defended his vetoes by saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” McAuliffe’s boneheaded comment allowed Youngkin to put the Virginia election in the forefront of the heated national debate over what should be taught in schools and who gets to decide. 

Critical race theory — an academic construct suggesting that racism is embedded in American institutions — has become a flashpoint in this debate, and numerous state legislatures and school boards have moved to ban its teaching. Ignored in all this is that critical race theory is not taught in schools below the college level. Also ignored is that the theory does not imply that all White people are racists. Rather, critical race theory holds that racism is pervasive in America because of the nation’s history. 

Attacks on Toni Morrison’s novel and critical race theory are part of a Republican strategy to focus public ire on so-called cultural issues rather than on more substantive matters. The GOP’s attempt to wage culture wars also deflects attention from the embarrassing revelations that have arisen and likely will continue to arise regarding the role Trump and key Republican politicians played in the January 6 insurrection. 

Fights over what is and is not taught in the nation’s schools are proxy battles for the larger issue centering on the enormous changes in the makeup of American society over the last half century. In the middle of the last century, the nation was nearly 90 percent White. Now, it is 60 percent White and in a few decades, people of color will be a majority. White resentment fueled the rise of political populism and lifted Trump to the presidency in 2016, and it continues to manifest itself in the culture wars that are animating the Virginia gubernatorial election.

Besides, Republican strategists and politicians have understood for decades that culture wars not only energize voters, they help raise an enormous amount of money. Terry Dolan of the National Conservative Political Action Committee admits, “The shriller you are, the better it is to raise money.” Fevered pitches centered on education but also focused on such issues as abortion, gun rights, marriage equality, transgender issues. and “cancel culture” rake in millions of dollars for rightwing politicians. As “Deep Throat” said in the 1970s in another connection, “Follow the money.”

The role of culture wars in Republican political strategy was revealed recently in a memo sent by Representative Jim Banks of Indiana to fellow members of the Republican Study Committee. Banks chairs the group, and his memo encouraged Republicans to embrace attacks on critical race theory. Banks entitled the memo, “Lean into the culture war,” and he wrote “Republicans are working to renew American patriotism and rebuild our country,” adding, “Here’s the good news. We are winning.”

I do not know if Glenn Youngkin read Banks’ memo, but clearly Youngkin’s strategy comports with its thrust in that he apparently believes a cultural battle centered on Toni Morrison’s revered book will result in a victory next Tuesday.

Posted October  29, 2021

 

Death Is Not Good Politics

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Many Republican governors have staked their political reputations on fighting vaccine and mask mandates. These state chief executives evidently believe a rather quixotic definition of freedom is good politics. But, the soaring hospitalization and death rates from COVID-19 in their states has led to plunging poll numbers.

Death, apparently, is not good politics!

Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida have staked their political reputations on loud and public opposition to mandates intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Sure, there is some cachet among certain followers on the far right in opposing vaccine and mask mandates, but both leaders are paying a steep price with the general public for their opposition to commonsense public health measures. Abbott’s job approval rating has dropped from a high of 56 percent in April 2020 to 41 percent last month. DeSantis’ net approval rating has plummeted even more dramatically, falling 14 points between the beginning of July 2021 and late August. (Net approval rating calculates the share of voters who approve a politician’s performance minus the share who disapprove.)

Fixing precise cause and effect for a politician’s popularity is, of course, difficult. In the case of Abbott, there are many reasons why Texas voters may have soured on his stewardship over the last year or so. This past winter, Texas suffered an energy crisis when three severe winter storms caused the state’s power grid to fail. Abbott dithered in his response, choosing to blame renewable energy sources — which provide only a small fraction of the Texas’ electric power — for the crisis. Abbott’s popularity may be taking a hit as well from the severe rightward tilt of the state’s Republican Party. The GOP-controlled legislature has passed — and Abbott has signed — a draconian law virtually banning abortion, a measure that allows for the open carry of handguns without a permit, and a voting restriction law that suppresses minority voting. Texas is now a minority-majority state, so some or all of these laws may not have widespread public support.

It is hard to ignore the very public fights Abbott and DeSantis have waged against mandates, particularly against local school boards mandating masks for public school children and teachers, as a cause of their declining popularity. DeSantis has been outspoken in protecting what he calls “parents’ freedom to choose whether their children wear masks.” Apparently, the desire of other parents to ensure that their children are safe in school is not a concern of the governor.

A number of school boards in Florida pushed back against DeSantis’ ban on local mask mandates. More than half of the state’s students attend schools in districts that have ignored the governor’s ban. DeSantis countered by threatening to withhold the salaries of top school officials and school board members who defied him. DeSantis may be losing this fight. A Florida judge ruled this week that the state cannot enforce a ban on school districts mandating the wearing of masks intended to protect students, teachers, and staff from infection. Abbott, too, has suffered defeats in state courts over his ban on mask mandates in Texas school districts. 

For much of the past few months, Florida has been the epicenter of contagion from the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Texas has also suffered higher than average infection rates, with correspondingly high hospitalization and death rates. Florida’s vaccination rate mirrors the national average, while the rate in Texas is below the national average. Both governors have urged state residents to get vaccinated, but both oppose vaccine mandates. Most tellingly, in both Florida and Texas child hospitalizations from COVID-19 have risen, a statistic guaranteed to encourage more parents to demand their children attend schools where masks are mandated.

Both governors are up for reelection in 2022. Normally, both would be odds-on favorites to win another term since both Florida and Texas lean Republican. Besides, incumbency usually gives a candidate a boost of a few points, and candidates from the party opposite of the president frequently get a lift in midterm elections. But, given the two governors’ declining popularity ratings, normal may not be in play next year. And, a failure to win reelection would doom the presidential aspirations of both men.

Other Republican governors in red states have followed the lead of DeSantis and Abbott. Even Glen Youngkin, the gubernatorial candidate in the purple state of Virgina, has come out against mask mandates in the name of parental rights. And, in blue state California, Governor Gavin Newsom’s bid to survive a recall vote has received a boost because voters have recoiled from the opposition to mask and vaccine mandates by his chief rival, rightwing talk show host Larry Elder. Obviously, there are political incentives for Republicans to defy logic and public health guidelines. The political calculation for these politicians is clear: Their base on the far right believes mandates — even when enacted to protect the health and safety of children — somehow infringe on personal freedom. Angry shouting matches and violence have broken out at school board meetings and teachers have been attacked over the issue of mask mandates.

But, in shoring up their right flank and protecting against primary challenges, are red state governors — and other Republican politicians — courting problems in general elections? It is an axiom in American politics that candidates run to the extremes — the right for Republicans, the left for Democrats — in primaries, then tack to the center in general elections. Will that be possible for governors of states in which the electorate believes their elected leaders’ vociferous opposition to mask and vaccine mandates resulted in the unnecessary hospitalizations and deaths of thousands?

Being seen on the side of death is never good politics.

Posted September 10, 2021