By Don Mohler
Early in the morning on January 20, 2021, Democrats cracked the champagne and joined together in a robust version of “Happy Days are Here Again.” Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock delivered improbable victories in Georgia, a state that President Biden won by the infamous 11,000 votes just two months earlier. Democrats would have 50 votes in the Senate, the Presidency, and a majority in the House of Representatives, no matter how slim the margin. With Vice President Harris ready to cast the tie-breaking vote, Democrats would be able to end the filibuster and go it alone if necessary. The nightmare was over, and sunny skies were on the horizon. What could possibly go wrong?
Ten months later, Republicans soared to victory in Virginia, taking back the Governor’s mansion and the House of Delegates, while coming within a few votes of winning the gubernatorial race in one of the bluest states in the nation, New Jersey. The voters were clearly sending a message, but what message exactly? There is not an easy answer to that question.
First, enter Senators Manchin and Sinema. In 2020, West Virginia voters gave Donald Trump a 40-point electoral victory. Joe Manchin is the only Democrat that could hold a senate seat, or almost any elective office, in the Mountain State. Embracing a full-blown progressive agenda would certainly not be representative of the voters in his state and would lead to his political demise. We can debate all day long whether or not an elected official should vote his conscience or represent the will of the voters in his or her state. Since we can’t look into Senator Manchin’s heart, let’s just assume he chooses to represent his people. The Democratic base may not like it, but it is a fact, and after decades in public service, it is not likely to change.
Sinema, on the other hand, is a horse of a different color. She represents a state that delivered the President a razor thin victory in November, and one that is turning more purple each and every day. It is not electoral politics that informs her decisions, it has to be her individual beliefs. Now if you can figure out what it is that she holds near and dear to her heart and makes her want to get out of bed in the morning, then please play the lottery today.
Then there’s the base of both parties. As the precinct-by-precinct analysis begins to drift in, it is clear that the Republican base was as energized as ever. The Democratic base was asleep at the switch. And even more importantly, independents and suburban voters who decide elections, and who soundly rejected President Trump, supported Republican candidates in large numbers across the board. Moving forward, Democrats need to figure out why this happened or prepare for a real shellacking in 2022.
Would the results have been different if Manchin and Sinema were truly on board from day one, enabling Democrats to pass transformative legislation, protect voter rights, reduce the cost of prescription drugs, expand Medicare, rebuild our aging roads and bridges, and create one of the most robust first years of a presidency in history? Perhaps. We will never know, and that’s a real shame. But Democrats would make a huge mistake if that’s where their analysis stops.
The bigger issue may be that Democrats misread the Biden victory. Rather than a clarion call for change, perhaps voters were simply tired of the chaos and decided that Joe Biden would return a sense of normalcy to the nation. Joe wasn’t Bernie, and he certainly wasn’t the Twitter in Chief. It wasn’t as much about policy as it was about tweets in the middle of the night. The American people were tired and said, “Enough!”
There is something else at play. Even though Democratic policy proposals are wildly popular with voters, that popularity rarely resonates the way that the cultural issue du jour does. The Republican Party is the master at creating a hot-button issue, one that is usually not an issue at all, that will energize swing voters. One year it is death panels. The next, trans boys and girls making our bathrooms unsafe. Then there’s caravans on the border and defund the police. And in 2021, it was critical race theory. Not a single one of these issues was ever a “thing,” but that didn’t
matter. They pushed all the right buttons. They raised the specter of a nation in chaos, and they scared the hell out of suburban voters. Add in a tragic withdrawal from Afghanistan, a raging Delta variant, and a right-wing strategy to weaponize local school board meetings, and you have a perfect storm.
The answer to the question as to what happened on Tuesday is a resounding “all of the above.” Americans don’t like chaos, and they are not crazy about debt, excessive spending, taxes, and rising crime rates. It’s a tale as old as time. The rejection of Donald J. Trump reflected the exhaustion of the American people. Joseph R. Biden promised that once again we would all sing Kumbaya. Over the past year, we never got to sing. Delta wouldn’t let us put the plague behind us. Inflation reared its ugly head. The FBI reported increasing crime in every community. Democrats came out of the gate strong and passed the American Recovery Act, but from that point on it was all downhill. The Democratic Party seemed as dysfunctional as the Kardashians. Folks may like dysfunction in their pop TV. They don’t like it in Congress.
Democrats bickered about trillions in spending as opposed to helping Americans understand what was in the Infrastructure and Build Back Better bills. If you want to be the party of ideas, you better deliver on those ideas. They too often sounded like college professors having a philosophy discussion in the faculty lounge. Regular folks at their children’s soccer games on Saturday morning don’t talk like that. And here’s a tip: regular folks are black, and brown, and white. They live in the suburbs, and they live on the farm. They come in all shapes and sizes. When chaos reigns and it’s more expensive to fill the gas tank, the filibuster lives, and voting rights do not, Democrats should have seen the dark clouds coming. They did not, and on Tuesday it poured. Democrats need to deliver the goods and sharpen the message. If they do not, the storm will become a tsunami in 2022.
Don Mohler is the former Baltimore County Executive and President and CEO of Mohler Communication Strategies. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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