Tag Archives: Terry McAuliffe

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

Democrats at a Crossroad

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

This is crunch time for Democrats. The party’s congressional leaders must make several crucial decisions in the next few weeks, deciding what parts of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda to push, how to do so (with or without Republican support), and how to placate the disparate wings of their own party.

Three immediate questions confront Democrats. First, how long to continue discussions with Republicans regarding bipartisan support for an infrastructure bill? Second, how fast to move, given the legislative calendar? Third, what to do about the Senator Joe Manchin problem?

The president desires — almost desperately — bipartisan cooperation with Republicans. No one should find this surprising, given Joe Biden’s background. He spent decades in the Senate, at a time — at least in his early years as a senator — when comity ruled. Biden witnessed and participated in forging numerous compromises with members across the aisle. As President Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden drew on his past as a dealmaker in the Senate to persuade a few Republican senators to support Obama’s economic stimulus bill, making its passage bipartisan.

No doubt, Biden entered talks on an infrastructure package with West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito sincerely hoping to reach an agreement. But, those talks broke down this week as the two sides remain hundreds of billions of dollars apart and disagree over how to pay for infrastructure improvements. If Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on an infrastructure plan — given that every senator or representative should want a new bridge or road in his or her district — then the prospects of cooperation on anything else approach zero.

Gaining Republican support for anything proposed by Democrats was always a long shot for Biden. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell telegraphed early his intention to continue his sordid career as the king of obstruction. “One hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” the Kentuckian said. Another indication that bipartisanship is chimerical came when Republicans in the Senate refused to end a filibuster against creating a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection. If Republicans cannot agree with Democrats to investigate a riotous mob that threatened their own safety, then, once again, what in the world would they ever back?

Infrastructure talks continue among a group of so-called moderate senators from both parties, but prospects for success remain dim. Despite those talks, it is easy to conclude that Republicans are stringing discussions along, delaying votes for as long as possible. At some point, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer must decide when to pull the plug and invoke the parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation to get something passed by the Senate. What would be in a bill passed only with Democratic votes depends on what conservatives in the party are willing to support.

The legislative calendar dictates the need for Democrats to move quickly. It is less than six months into the Biden administration, but time is short. So far, Biden can point to two major successes: The distribution of the vaccine, allowing the nation to return to some semblance of normal (though the decline in the number of shots per day threatens the recovery), and the passage of his stimulus package, which appears to have bolstered the economy. But, the rest of important parts of Biden’s plan are either stalled in the legislative hopper or unlikely to receive even united Democratic support.

Congress works frustratingly slowly. Haste is not likely in the foreseeable future, as it is already the second week of June, with Congress slated to take a nearly two weeks break around July 4 and then a month-long recess in August. The longer Republicans can delay legislation, the more difficult it will be to pass anything. By late summer and early fall, Congress will be bogged down in talks over raising the debt ceiling, always a messy process. In any event, Democrats must pass substantive legislation this year, because 2022 is an election year, which will make legislating even more difficult, if not impossible.

Then, there is the Joe Manchin problem. The West Virginian is the 50th, and arguably most conservative, member of the Democratic caucus, so keeping him happy is imperative. Manchin represents a conservative state, and he must be attuned to the wishes of his constituents. And, while I believe he is an impediment to progress, it is also unfair to blame him entirely for Democratic woes. There are many other Democratic moderates in both chambers of Congress who have problems with parts of the Biden agenda, including the expansive voting rights law and the cost of much of what has been proposed. In the Senate, in addition to those concerns, there is reluctance to end the filibuster.

The victory this week of former governor Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial primary heightens the previous trend in which Democratic primary voters have chosen moderates over progressives. The failure of progressives to win more elections only eases the pressure on moderates in Congress to support liberal measures. In turn, this easing of pressure on moderates increases the pressure on progressives to persuade their more conservative colleagues not only of the wisdom to go big, as it were, but of the need, in the Senate, to end the filibuster to allow for straight majority passage of the Democratic agenda.

Manchin professes to seek bipartisanship. He is not likely to get it. He also says he will not vote for the omnibus “For the People Act,” but will support reenactment of the 1965 voting rights law, which he thinks will get bipartisan support. But, McConnell recently declared his opposition to that measure, popularly named after the late Representative John Lewis, making it very unlikely that 10 Republican senators would vote to end a filibuster. At what point, does Manchin realize bipartisanship is a pipe dream?

All of this leaves Democrats at a crossroad. They must act soon to secure important legislation, including bills on infrastructure, protecting voting rights, addressing climate change, family security, and more, or risk going to the voters in the 2022 midterms having failed to enact most of their agenda. Perhaps, running against Republican obstruction might yield surprising victories in those elections, but that is a high-risk gamble, given Republican built-in electoral advantages, including gerrymandering, controlling redistricting in important states, and the long list of state voter suppression laws.

Democrats must act, and act soon, or risk wasting an important historical moment.

Posted June 11, 2021

 

 

Virginia Bloodies the Tea Party

Ken Cuccinelli’s defeat for governor of Virginia should put to rest the conventional right-wing excuse that Republicans lose national and state elections when they don’t run authentically conservative candidates. Ultra-conservatives point to the last two GOP presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, as proof of this contention.

Cuccinelli’s conservative bona fides were never in doubt; he made Bob “Transvaginal Probe” McDonnell, the current governor, look liberal. He ran for governor in a year when all the early signs pointed to a Republican cakewalk. Since the 1970s, Virginians have elected governors from the opposite party to that of the incumbent president. The Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, hardly inspired enthusiasm. He embodied some of the worst aspects of politics: lobbyist, famed fundraiser, glad-hander, and political sycophancy. His business dealings were suspect ethically, and he was open to the accusation of being a carpetbagger.

Yet Cuccinelli managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Some of the reasons for his defeat are peculiar to Cuccinelli and Virginia.The nominee alienated many Virginians, particularly women, with his support of legislation to ban the pill and other forms of birth control. He had ethical problems of his own, and he was saddled with a candidate for lieutenant governor so far to the right that he made Cuccinelli appear moderate, which is no easy task. Bishop E.W. Jackson once said “Planned Parenthood has been far more lethal to black lives than the KKK ever was,” and he connected homosexuality and pedophilia, calling gays “frankly very sick people psychologically.”

As one Virginia voter put it, choosing between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli was like choosing between a heart attack and cancer.

No doubt Cuccinelli’s electoral chances were diminished by the ill-conceived Republican shutdown of the government, which hurt many northern Virginians. But the shutdown was counterbalanced in recent weeks by the debacle of the rollout of the president’s healthcare reform program. Polls had McAuliffe with a comfortable lead going into election day; the problems with Obamacare may explain the ultimate closeness of the result.

Virginia tea partiers, believers in the dictum that electoral defeat follows failure to nominate ideologically pure conservatives, rigged the outcome of their party’s selection process to insure Cuccinelli’s candidacy. On May 18, Cuccinelli supporters scrapped the GOP gubernatorial primary, which probably would have led to the nomination of a mainstream conservative, current Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, in favor of a party convention, where a small number of ultra-conservative activists handed the nomination to their favorite: Ken Cuccinelli. The activists then proceeded to choose Bishop Jackson as lieutenant governor, who lost the general election by 10 points.

The closeness of the gubernatorial race makes it difficult to draw any lessons with national implications. Still, it’s hard not to conclude that Cuccinelli, a hard right conservative, is precisely the wrong kind of candidate for the GOP to try to ride to national victory.

Virginia is a purple state trending blue. The rapid growth of the Washington suburbs in Fairfax County and surrounding counties and the increasing diversity of the state — it has a fast growing Latino population — have made Virginia more Democratic. Obama carried the state in 2008 and 2012 and both senators are Democrats, as is the incoming governor.

Virginia is a battleground state that Republicans have to carry to win the White House. Cuccinelli’s defeat in a year when the early signs pointed to an easy Republican triumph does not bode well for the GOP. It certainly suggests that running hard right candidates may not be the route to success in moderate states. Consider, by way of contrast, the success of McDonnell in 2009. Personally extremely conservative, McDonnell muted his  ideology and ran to the center, allowing him to negate his Democratic opponent’s huge advantage in populous Fairfax County.

Cuccinelli’s loss Tuesday suggests that tea party darlings who have been mentioned as 2016 candidates — Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul — would have a hard time carrying Virginia. Chris Christie’s huge reelection in blue New Jersey suggests, by way of contrast, that he is the kind of Republican who could do well in battleground states.

But Chris Christie probably cannot win early Republican caucuses and primaries in Iowa and South Carolina. Therein lies the GOP dilemma.

Posted November 8, 2012