It's early, but Republicans have already seized on their strategy for winning the 2022 and 2024 elections.
Of course, it does not depend on mundane tactics like "running on their record" or "making robust arguments about how their policies are better than their opponents." The GOP is instead returning to the well that has, time and again, paid off handsomely: feigning umbrage over culture war flashpoints, usually ones wholly invented by the right or propped up with lies, to distract from substantive policy debates that actually impact American lives.
And it will probably work — again— because Democrats, hamstrung by their own inability to end the Senate filibuster, will not be able to pass substantive legislation they can tout as accomplishments in future campaigns. And so the election will come down to the Great Potato Head and Dr. Seuss Wars of 2022. Even more unfortunate, truly vulnerable people — like those who are part of the trans community — are also in the crosshairs, as the favored target for the culture wars that Republicans want to wage ahead of the next election.
For those of you blissfully unaware of what some 20th century children's artifacts — Dr. Seuss and Potato Head — have to do with politics, well, let me briefly explain.
Conservatives are fanning out on Fox News and other right-wing media, as well as in the hallowed chambers of Congress, to spread lies about these childhood mainstays being "canceled" due to imaginary liberal censorship. It's not true, of course, but that's never stopped the right-wing noise machine before and it won't now.
With Dr. Seuss, the issue comes down to the children's book author's estate deciding not to continue publishing some of the more obscure titles because they include racist imagery that runs against the childrens' author's own lifelong commitment to progressive politics. Importantly, most of his titles, especially the ones that are most beloved by the public, such as "Green Eggs and Ham" and "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" will continue to be published. But conservatives took this nugget as an excuse to go buck wild with lies about Dr. Seuss being "canceled."
It was never suggested that Dr. Seuss be "outlawed," of course, but more to the point, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told this lie while on the Senate floor to literally vote against a bill protecting the right to vote. Whining about "cancel culture" while trying to cancel legal voters is a new low in GOP bullshit, that's for sure.
It's the same story with Potato Head, or as the toy brand was previously called, Mr. Potato Head.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head toys will still be sold, but the umbrella brand name was changed to reflect what was always true about the toy: featureless potatoes have never had a gender. As far as the right is concerned, however, this is a reason to pretend we're facing the apocalypse.
Unfortunately, the feigned outrage isn't limited to whining about toys and children's books. The "for the children" posturing is being used to justify a larger assault on trans people, as Republicans cast around for a wedge issue to define the 2022 election. Namely, the GOP is gearing up for an all-out campaign that claims, falsely, LGBTQ activists are trying to "turn" your kids trans, and that cis girls will be under threat from "boys pretending to be girls," which is the offensive frame that Republicans use to describe trans girls. Freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R.-Ga., hanging an anti-trans sign outside of her office to bully Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., who has a trans daughter, is just the tip of the iceberg here.
There's been a drastic escalation of anti-trans rhetoric on the right, most of it centered around false claims that trans girls and women are a threat to cis girls and women. Worse, Republicans are also introducing bills meant to make life much harder for trans kids in schools by barring them from participating in school activities and, in some cases, even banning trans kids from using the bathroom.
These bills are justified with claims to be "protecting" cis girls from dangers that lurk only in the imaginations of transphobes. Unsurprisingly, actual evidence shows trans kids are not a threat to anyone:
In fact, not only do these bills not protect cis girls, but they can and likely will be used to hurt cis girls. In some states, the bills allow schools to force any girl participating in sports to "prove" her gender by submitting to a genital inspection. It's easy to see how both trans kids and cis kids who don't fit conservative school officials ideas about "proper" gendered behavior — such as boys who want to be cheerleaders or girls deemed "too" muscular — will be bullied with forced genital exams. Indeed, the ACLU has already filed suit against Idaho on behalf of two students, one trans and one cis, who object to being forced to undergo genital inspections in order to play sports.
Former House Speaker and all-around repugnant scumbag Newt Gingrich tied all this together on Fox News Wednesday night, declaring, "They want to create an alternative America" in which "transgender dominates Christianity and Judaism" and "they just proved with Dr. Seuss" that "they really despise America." (Gingrich would, have, unsurprisingly, hated Dr. Seuss when he was alive, as the children's author was an environmentalist who loathed authoritarians like Gingrich.)
While Republicans have long used these kinds of fake issues to distract voters from what really matters, Democrats could actually fight back this time — with one simple trick: Nuke the filibuster.
Culture war antics work because they keep the GOP voters whipped up over imaginary threats. The most famous example is how Republicans fed their voters a bunch of lies in 2004 about the "danger" to marriage poised by same-sex couples, which drove up turnout and helped drag George W. Bush over the finish line in a tight race. But Democrats can also drive up turnout on their side, by focusing on real issues that actually matter to voters, such as economic issues and health care.
However, running on the real issues requires showing voters that Democrats are capable of taking actions on these matters. Unfortunately, as recent days have shown, passing even basic legislation to do very basic things to help people — such as raising the minimum wage — is currently impossible, due to the stubborn unwillingness of centrist Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to vote to end the filibuster. As long as Republicans have veto power over all substantive legislation, Democrats will get very little done. And so their voters will get disillusioned and drop off, leaving the polls to people who mostly vote how Fox News tells them to.
If Democrats want 2022 to be a referendum on real issues, where they have an advantage, they need to pass bills.
And it's not enough to pass one coronavirus relief package through budget reconciliation. Republicans can, truthfully, say they also did that — and unlike Democrats, they didn't take away checks from 12 million voters that were promised they'd get checks. Running on your record requires having a record to run on, not on twiddling your thumbs for two years because an arbitrary and unnecessary Senate tradition stops you from passing bills. If bills don't start moving through the Senate, the 2022 election will be defined by fake hysterics about trans kids in bathrooms and the gender identity of Potato Head. And that is not an election that Democrats win.