Biden is making a critical mistake about Democrats' loss in Virginia

Biden is making a critical mistake about Democrats' loss in Virginia

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the passing of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Tuesday, August 10, 2021, in the East Room of the White House.

(Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

The president was right in thinking there's not much he or his party could have done to prevent losing Virginia in this week's off-off-year election in which Terry McAuliffe got more votes than any Democrat in the state's history. "I'm not sure that I would be able to have changed the number of very conservative folks who turned out in the red districts who were Trump voters," he said. "But maybe. Maybe."

But I think Joe Biden was wrong, too. He said that once his party works out how to pass his legislative agenda, "factors grinding on Americans — the lingering pandemic, rising costs at the gas pump, uncertainty about the economy — as problems … would go away if he could just get his agenda passed," according to the Associated Press. Biden said:

If I'm able to pass, sign into law my Build Back Better initiative, I'm in a position where you're going to see a lot of those things ameliorated quickly and swiftly.

I say I think he was wrong, but I used to think he was right. I used to think voters would respond to, and reward, Democrats who were willing to take bold action — who delivered for everyone materially. I'd guess this has been presumed true by anyone having in mind the legacy of the New Deal. Take the side of "the common man" and win.

But after seeing what happened in Virginia, after seeing the GOP exploit the long history, deep roots and present social condition of white supremacy to break the coalition that delivered the state to the president by 10 points last year, I'm not sure material gains matter. The common man doesn't want help economically. He wants to feel like he's back on top. That feeling would require taking a side against the out-group, which is to say, against the base of the Democratic Party.

Under this president's watch, the country has seen a massive vaccine roll out, a historic rise in wages and a gigantic, nearly $2 trillion recovery package passed that included billions for advanced child-tax credit payments to working moms and dads. Yet in Virginia, that could not compete with the discomfort a majority of white people felt as a consequence of anti-racist gains made after George Floyd's death. Here's $3,000 per kid, Democrats said. Here's "critical race theory," Republicans said. The people of the commonwealth made their choice. One thing is real. The other is fiction. And the fiction won the day.

As if to illustrate the point, CNN ran a story this morning about a family of 11 (two adults, nine children) struggling to make ends meet in face of rising food and gas prices. This is a legitimate and practical concern. Focusing on prices is focusing on half the truth, though. A family with nine children over 6 years of age should have gotten about $27,000 in advanced child tax credits this year. Mom and Dad might have decided against getting that ready money. They may have had their reasons. Either way, this information is missing from the report.

CNN's story illustrates how respectable white people — that great globular middle of American politics — have the ability to complain about the state of the economy under a Democratic president without taking into account serious material gains made under a Democratic president. Indeed, they might swap those gains for the convenience of having "reasons" to vote against the Democrat while the real reasons — feeling the pain and discomfort of anti-racist demands — go unsaid.

According to the same AP report, "three-quarters of voters in Virginia said drawn-out negotiations in Washington over Biden's governing agenda were an important factor in their vote. Those voters were more likely to back [Glenn] Youngkin." Yet "education" was the No. 1 concern, meaning the teaching of the long history, deep roots and present social condition of white supremacy to white kids. You'd think members of the Washington press corps, of all people, would be more skeptical. Luckily, the president doesn't seem to buy said "reasons."

He's right to not buy them. But what about where he's wrong — what about his apparent belief in the long-held belief among Democrats and liberals (including me) that taking the side of "the common man" will yield victory in time? Even if he and the Democrats pass $3.5 trillion in nation-rebuilding, Virginia suggests none of it may matter to voters who will thank the Democrats kindly before giving them the boot.

We've been here before. Barack Obama led passage of the $800 billion stimulus in the wake of the housing crisis as well as the Affordable Care Act. Yet voters did not reward America's first Black president. They punished him. They gave the House to the Republicans, arguably making Obama a lame duck with six years to go in his presidency.

At the time, it was said Barack Obama and the Democrats weren't bold enough. They weren't spending big enough. This is the stated rationale today for the Democrats to aim high. But supposing they get their $3.5 trillion in nation-rebuilding and it still doesn't yield victory. What then? Are the Democrats going to spend even more next time they can? What if white people believe the advantages of white supremacy are just more important than trillions and trillions spent in their name?

I wish I had a good answer.

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