What Democrats can learn from the 2022 midterms to beat the GOP in 2024
The post-mortems have been nearly unanimous: Republicans "underperformed" in the midterms due to the taint of Trump, dismay over January 6th, backlash to the Dobbs decision, and realization that President Joe Biden, as was said of Wagner's music, "is better than it sounds."
Ok…Democrats beat expectations. But where's any after-report explaining how Democrats also allowed the most lawless, lying, reactionary party in American history to narrowly control one Chamber of Congress? Campaigns, however, aren't horseshoes. According to the zero-sum math that matters—the GOP won the House by a margin of three percentage points and Jim Jordan will chair the Judiciary Committee hearings starting in January.
Good enough wasn't quite good enough.
The 2022 midterms can't predict the next presidential election (anymore than the 1982, 1994 or 2010 ones did). Still, what lessons might the Democratic party have learned to prevail in two years? To wit:
–how could they have failed for nearly all of two years to craft memorable messages and slogans to galvanize swing voters ("Build Back Better" not being it)?
–why didn't they make Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert the angry face of the GOP as they shouted at Biden during his State of the Union?
–why haven't they aggressively exploited their vanishing majority in these post-election two months to conduct hearings that set the table for the 118th Congress, say on student debt and a Censure Resolution against Greene for remarks endorsing political violence? (One exception—a House Judiciary hearing into possible misconduct at SCOTUS.)
–and why did prominent Democrats flinch at relentlessly portraying Trump's party as untruthful, unlawful, violent, even fascist?
If a review of Democratic performance last November merely concludes with a big "whew!," they'll more likely lose the next one as well. For they will soon face the amplification of both a vengeful House leadership and weaponized Twitter.
While it's obviously hard to predict what issues will dominate the next cycle, lessons from the midterms should inspire Democrats to start playing offense as soon as early 2023. Fall, 2024 is too late.
Step one means tattooing a very unpopular Trump on nearly all Republicans. Whether he runs seriously or not for reelection (since being a criminal defendant in several courtrooms during a campaign is not a plus—Trump has the potential to destroy them as a political majority for a generation. Hoover was a pinata for some 50 years. Carter for 20. Trump should be radioactive no less than they were. Notwithstanding the current hard polarization, the goal should be realignment, not merely narrow majorities.
Some Democratic pooh-bahs, however, have counseled candidates "not to look back," which is as foolish as ignoring the disgraced Nixon in l974 since he was no longer "on the ballot." Republican officeholders who have been either complicit or silent during Trump's carnage need to be held politically accountable for shredding the truth and the law.
When it comes to "accentuating the positive," the Biden White House will certainly keep touting real gains from its first term on jobs, drug prices, climate, gun safety, gay rights, Covid, Ukraine, plus what's to come in a possible second see (WinningAmerica.net, organized by Ralph Nader and the author, for a possible future agenda).
But Democrats cannot depend on this White House—helmed by two likable, lower-voltage moderates—to prosecute the negative case against a GOP playbook drafted over decades by such gunslingers as McCarthy, Nixon, Gingrich and Trump. (And given the inevitable race-to-the-bottom among 2024 presidential candidates—plus likely indictments of Trump and his clan from six grand juries—the negative side of the ledger will only grow.)
Effective counter-attacks are more likely to emerge from outside public advocacy groups, a handful of aggressive Members, and new wordsmiths at the DNC ideally with the polemical skills of a Samuel Adams (or at least a Frank Luntz). Think of how Elizabeth Warren (man)handled Michael Bloomberg in the second Democratic presidential debate. It took her ferocity to break through the billion dollar bubble protecting the ex-mayor.
Instead, Beltway consultants this past Fall failed to respond at all to GOP fear-mongering that called Democrats "Marxists, Communists, baby-killers" and, in Donald Trump's thoughtful formulation, "scum." In today's Age of Rage, there should be little space for "when they go low, we go high."
Nor did Democrats even attempt to neutralize such fatuous "culture war" slogans as CRT, groomers, vaccines, defund, woke—that is, DeSantism. All of which are variations of George Wallace, whose North Star, in his own phrase, was never to allow a political opponent "to out-n****r me." If unrebutted, to many these manufactured crises will appear undeniable.
Recently a federal court asked a lawyer for the State of Florida to define "woke" and was told it was the "belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to redress them"...as if Martin Luther King, Jr. was just some "woke" clergyman.
Hitting back will require more than disclosing additional outrages that largely serve to worsen scandal fatigue among weary voters and a cynical media. More urgent are convincing metaphors and narratives since by now the whole-is-greater- than- the- sum-of-its-parts when it comes to Trumpism and DeSantism.
As Churchill understood, galvanizing oratory matters. See how history still resonates with TR's "a chicken in every pot," Lenin's "land, bread, peace," Reagan's 'Morning in America." Recall how Newt Gingrich cleverly renamed "the estate tax" as the more alarming "Death Tax", Frank Luntz got even Democrats to talk about not "global warming" but the more anodyne "climate change", and some reactionary genius got people referring not to "Social Security" but a free lunch-sounding "Entitlement". Eisenhower's mention of a "Domino Effect'' in Southeast Asia and Reagan's concocted "welfare queen" dominated policy for decades.
Hard to think of a Democrat in memory who's said anything as enduring. Words matter and it's a mystery why Republicans—infinitely worse at policies to help families—are better at messaging which hurts them.
Last, it's corny but true that "good policies make good politics," in the estimate of Senators Schumer and Warren. As less inflation, more jobs, cleaner air and lower drug prices presumably take effect by the next election, some swing voters will take notice.
Among others, the new House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries, Jamie Raskin and Eric Swalwell have shown real talent for oratory that can keep the opposing party on the ropes.
The possibilities seem endless: "Progress is America…One Party Delivers, the Other Divides…Getting stuff done beats dangerous extremism…Let's party like it's l789…It's up to you America—Freedom or Fascism?"
An honest self-appraisal from 2022 and the ethic that offense- beats-defense can improve the odds for Democrats in 2024, if not crush Trump's party. Otherwise, Greene and Musk will be happy to flood the political zone with their QAnon conspiracies and stochastic terrorism in an effort to make January 6 a trial run.