Since most of us are sleeping better in the quietude of a sane presidency, it’s tempting to ignore the current craziness of the Republican Party. Between the QAnon wackos, the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, the voter suppression hard-liners, the coup enthusiasts and the election deniers, the party is showing a mash-up of madness.
But here’s the scariest part of all that: They’re still likely to take the House next year during the midterm elections, and possibly the Senate, as they continue to rewrite rules in several states to make it easier to compromise fair elections.
That means the Biden presidency, though riding high on a popular economic agenda and public health competence, may turn out to be a brief, single-term calm between two storms of authoritarianism.
Democrats can blame themselves, in part. They’ve given just enough ammunition to Republicans that a party waging war on democracy is on the cusp of undermining much of that democracy next year.
The Republican tank of ideas is full of the tired and the preposterous. Cut taxes for the wealthy. Climate change is fake. Make voting harder. And the big unifier: The 2020 presidential election was stolen. Try finding a national majority for any of that. So the Republican Party will run on what the Democrats have given them. Or at least what the far left of the party has given them.
“G.O.P. candidates in 2022 will happily accuse Democratic opponents of wanting to defund the police and teach contempt for the country in schools,” wrote James A. Baker III, a venerable party operative, sketching a rosy scenario in The Wall Street Journal. It’s a powerful one-two punch: Dems will make us less safe while preaching identity politics to the kids.
Republicans already control a majority of statehouses, and with them, the redistricting process. They need a net gain of only five seats to take the House, and a lone pickup to get control of the Senate.
The warning signs were there in 2020, and in a recent local election in which Democrats lost in a Latino-heavy part of Texas. Joe Biden won the popular vote by more than seven million, but Democrats suffered a net loss of 11 House seats.
In a post-mortem, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the New York Democrat overseeing his party’s congressional campaigns, told The Washington Post that the “lies and distortions about defund and socialism carried a punch.”
The way to hold off the barbarians on the right should be pretty simple. A unified Democratic message — helping people live better lives with a targeted hand from government — is hugely popular. It’s the essence of both the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act and Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill. And it should be the essence of what voters think about when they think about Democrats.
Another message, on cultural issues, is much less popular. In a recent congressional race for an open seat in New Mexico, Democrats won in a landslide by emphasizing economic fairness while directly confronting attacks on law and order. The winner, Melanie Stansbury, ran an ad that featured support from a former sheriff’s deputy.
The rise in violent crime is now the top concern of many voters across the country, according to a Yahoo News/YouGov survey, and in the Democratic primary for New York City mayor, according to a recent poll by Spectrum News NY1/Ipsos. Polling also shows that a majority of Americans oppose defunding the police, and Maloney says it’s a “pernicious lie” to label Democrats as the party of defund. But lies, fueled by lefty overreach in some cities as well as social media amplification, tend to have a much longer shelf life than boring talk about infrastructure.
On race, the great reckoning that began with George Floyd’s death last year should continue to expose the overlooked lowlights of history and work to get rid of the bias built into the system.
But in promoting the teaching of critical race theory — a term so misunderstood that it’s best known now as a Republican weapon — some educators have played into the hands of the Trumpers, even those less talented in the dark art of demagoguery. At the annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner in New Hampshire in early June, former Vice President Mike Pence said that children are being taught “to be ashamed of their skin color,” a popular Republican talking point.
If the message is that being born white is something akin to the Roman Catholic concept of original sin, then there’s bound to be a backlash among the moderate voters who came around to Democrats in the Trump era.
The longtime liberal strategist Ruy Teixeira warned of this very thing in his newsletter in May and said moderates are afraid to push back. “The administration is doing nothing to head off this impending culture war in the schools because to do so would bring the wrath of the stridently woke sector of the Democratic Party down upon Biden’s head,” he wrote.
Trump is diminished but still very dangerous. His party is stocked with brick-headed deniers. Nearly three in 10 Republicans said they think he will be reinstated in the White House this year. This month, Trump called his defeat “the crime of the century” and got applause when he denounced critical race theory.
Democrats won’t be able to contain the tornado of awfulness around Trump with the “stridently woke,” in Teixeira’s words. Common-sense politics may not be a rallying cry, but it wins elections.
Timothy Egan (@nytegan) is a contributing Opinion writer who covers the environment, the American West and politics. He is a winner of the National Book Award and the author of, most recently, “A Pilgrimage to Eternity.”
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