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Virginia election spotlights Biden's flailing party

How the Democrats put Republicans in the enviable position of having to do nothing at all.
Image: President Joe Biden speaks at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on Oct. 8, 2021.
One poll has found that only 40 percent of Democrats say President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better initiative will boost them and the economy. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

All eyes are trained on this week’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, with the expectation that these contests will forecast the electoral environment in 2022.

Democrats have set their Republican opponents up to once again be rewarded for doing, well, nothing at all.

While Democrats are confident of their prospects in the Garden State, Virginia’s statehouse race has clearly unnerved them. There, Democrats are pulling out all the stops. Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe has deemed his opponent, Republican Glenn Youngkin, a cultural revanchist mounting a racist campaign to ban specific books from schools. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., has suggested Youngkin’s effort to keep critical race theory out of state elementary education the equivalent of using an unspeakable ethnic slur without saying the word outright.

President Joe Biden implied that Youngkin’s “smile and fleece vest” barely disguises his “extremism,” which is indistinguishable from the extremism of the mob that sacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. When he wasn’t condemning Youngkin, the president was summoning the specter of Donald Trump, begging him to weigh in on the Virginia race and shake Democratic voters out of their complacency.

What Democrats are not talking about as much as their GOP opponents is what they’ve done in the months they’ve controlled the levers of power in Washington and what they hope to accomplish moving forward. And that has some of their most prominent boosters fit to be tied.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, prominent Florida-based trial lawyer and high-dollar Democratic donor John Morgan unloaded on his party for presiding over “a general feeling of not understanding why nothing can get done.” The Democrats’ inability to pass the far-reaching initiatives its members have spent weeks promoting is “single-handedly torpedoing” Democratic candidates and setting the stage for “a blood bath” of a midterm election cycle in 2022.

Morgan didn’t dwell on why Democratic ambitions are being frustrated, but some pollsters have. Their conclusions aren’t surprising: Those Democratic ambitions only resonate with Democrats. Among the voters in the middle of the electorate, whose consent is necessary to lubricate the gears of government, the sentiment around Democratic initiatives ranges from ambivalent to outright hostile. Thus, Democrats have set their Republican opponents up to once again be rewarded for doing, well, nothing at all.

Longtime Democratic pollster Joel Benenson recently teamed up with Republican polling consultant Neil Newhouse to see how persuadable voters have received the first 10 months of the Biden administration. Their findings reinforce Democrats’ worst fears: The present political environment is looking increasingly like the one that preceded the 2010 midterm cycle, which swept Democrats from federal office at a near-record pace, and for essentially the same reasons.

While Democratic voters are focused on matters like climate change, mitigating the pandemic, and “raising taxes on the rich,” self-identified independents are apprehensive over rising rates of inflation and its effect on their economic fortunes.

“The conversation in Washington doesn’t match the conversation that’s happening around the country,” Newhouse observed. Just as in 2009, Democrats in Washington are preoccupied with sweeping legislative reforms to the existing social compact. Centrist voters believe that the campaign has come at the expense of more pressing pocketbook issues.

While Democratic voters are focused on matters like climate change, mitigating the pandemic, and “raising taxes on the rich,” self-identified independents are apprehensive over rising rates of inflation and its effect on their economic fortunes. More disturbingly from a Democrats’ perspective, those voters are beginning to link fiscal profligacy in Washington with their own worsening financial situation. These pollsters discovered that a staggering 71 percent of independents agreed with the statement, “People will continue to pay more money on everyday expenses unless the government becomes more fiscally responsible.”

CNN polling analyst Harry Enten has arrived at a similar conclusion. Citing a recent CBS News/YouGov survey, Enten observed that only 37 percent of voters “say that Biden and his fellow Democrats are focusing on the issues they care a lot about.” A narrow band of the electorate shares Democratic priorities, like combating climate change or even shoring up America’s physical infrastructure. A Fox News poll released Oct. 20 produced similar results, adding that the only issue that resonated with a majority of voters was the rising cost of consumer goods. More distressingly for Democrats, only 40 percent say Biden’s Build Back Better initiative and all its constituent social engineering will help them financially and buttress the national economy.

This puts Republicans in the enviable position of not having to do much at all. They don’t have to offer a positive legislative vision for the country, and they don’t have to swallow hard and ratify Democratic legislative goals; they can obstruct and criticize, and that will likely be enough. After all, that’s what the voters Republicans are courting want from them. And it’s frustrating the progressive left to no end.

The Democratic Party’s allies in the press mourn the extent to which “Democratic ambitions” have been “sharply curtailed in the face of Republican obstruction.” They curse the tools the minority party wields to stymie Democratic priorities — from the filibuster, to the debt ceiling, to even the U.S. Senate itself — while glossing over the fact that these tools can only be wielded sustainably by a minority party that expects to be rewarded for its efforts. In this way, the left is making the GOP’s case for them: “Obstructionism” is precisely what their voters want, because the alternative to stonewalling is the passage of Democratic initiatives with which they disagree.

Then, as now, Democrats were theatrically scandalized by the Republican Party’s stubborn refusal to compromise with the governing party.

The Democratic Party’s boosters in media are just as likely to rage over the Republican Party’s failure to stake out firm positions their opponents can argue against. It is a matter of “official record” that the Republicans “lack any affirmative governing agenda,” New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz wrote. The party is driven by its quest for power alone, Newsweek’s Scott Huler scoffed. “That's what you want when you lack any policy agenda,” he sneered, “that's what you want if your only goal is winning, purely for its own sake.” That sordid appetite for power would be off-putting if the recourse offered to voters was not just another flavor of naked ambition and power acquisition.

Democrats have revived their efforts to portray the Republican Party as “extreme” — an image the GOP and its Trumpian apologists for the Jan. 6 mob are doing little to combat. But the governing party’s partisan allies also insist that the primary manifestation of Republican “extremism” is their efforts to block Democratic legislative initiatives. “Experts on comparative politics say the GOP is an extremist outlier” compared with center-right political parties elsewhere on the globe, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wrote. Perhaps. But so what? The party in command of a majority of statehouses and state legislatures and which owes its minority status in the Senate to a consent agreement with Democrats isn’t an “outlier” in the United States.

If this all sounds familiar to you, you’re not wrong. Democrats who rage against the party of obstruction, extremism and “no content” are reprising all the arguments they unsuccessfully deployed against the GOP ahead of their 2010 drubbing.

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Then, as now, Democrats were theatrically scandalized by the Republican Party’s stubborn refusal to compromise with the governing party at a time when the governing party was far more powerful than it is today. “Obama frequently reminds voters he believes all the delay in Washington this year is the Republicans’ fault,” Politico observed at the time. But that’s exactly what the voters they were pursuing wanted.

Then, as now, the internecine tumult that gave rise to a new generation of anti-establishmentarian Republicans was a species of Republican “extremism.” The “quasi-libertarian” populism that overtook the GOP a decade ago has been supplanted by a quasi-authoritarian populism, but the profound distinctions between the two movements are elided in Democratic rhetoric that frames both as equally “extremist.” Again, given the alternative, that’s what prospective Republican voters are willing to accept.

Then, as now, Democrats are irritated by how Republicans have managed to avoid taking “stands on a sea of issues.” In 2010, Democrats convinced themselves that Republicans had positioned their party as a nebulous vehicle of reflexive opposition. Worse, voters were letting them get away with it. That is a handy narrative if your goal is to avoid confronting the conditions that have allowed Republicans to get away with it. Namely, the governing party’s dogged commitment to what America’s most enthused voters increasingly see as maladministration.

Democrats know they’re facing strong headwinds ahead of 2022, but they cannot be honest with themselves about why. Democrats convinced themselves that the mandate Biden won in 2020 for moderation and a return to the pre-Trump status quo was a mandate to rewrite the American social compact. Republicans don’t have to be anything more than be against that.