Strategy for the Democrats

By Mike Koetting March 7, 2021

Despite winning the presidential election and controlling both houses of Congress, the short term for Democrats is worrisome. The margin in both houses of Congress is thin, incumbent parties don’t usually do well in mid-terms, and Republicans have many structural advantages.

I believe Democrats need a three-prong strategy.

Attack the Most Extreme

Republicans have had a fair amount of success at painting Democrats as “socialists” and making AOC the embodiment of Democratic policy. Democrats can respond to current circumstances by painting the Republican Party as the party of QAnon and making Marjorie Taylor Greene (MTG) the embodiment of Republican policy. Actually, the bizarreness of this comparison makes clear how disoriented American politics are. One can reasonably disagree with AOC’s policy proposals. But they are real policy proposals. Many are in place in other developed countries. MTG traffics in sloganeering, conspiracy and goofy fantasy.

The Republicans already face fractures that are hard to accommodate in a single party except by pretending that underlying ideas make no difference and all that’s important is maintaining power.

Pretending away these differences will present challenges for Republicans. Not renouncing the lunatic elements of the party may be necessary to win the next round of primaries. But they will have an increasingly difficult time winning general elections in many places if they don’t. Republicans are already facing demographic head-winds and there is evidence of specific party erosion as a section of the party revolts against Trump and those willing to either embrace or accommodate the ugliest concepts of his diehard supporters.

But ignoring the differences is the route Republican leadership seems to have chosen. They make a few pronouncements about the evils of the conspiratorial part of the party, fail to take any serious action to cut off that wing, and bet that when it comes time to vote, traditional Republicans will forget how upset they were and the angrier portion of the party will back them for lack of alternatives.

The arithmetic here is not far-fetched. Republicans can count on their structural advantages—the Senate, the Electoral College, years of gerrymandering, and the prospects of vote suppression to keep more states from swinging blue. Remember, despite losing the national vote by 7 million votes, a swing of fewer than 50,000 votes in key states could have reelected Trump.

Where Democrats can effectively make MTG the face of the Republican party, they will shave off at least some of the support of traditional conservatives. This may be enough to work in presidential elections and in states with enough urban populations to win statewide offices if the vote can be mobilized. But by itself, it is not enough. Republicans will continue to be competitive in certain geographies and that will give them enough presence in Congress to make hard to get anything done.

Focus on the Bigger Picture

While exploiting the split within the Republican party will be useful, it does not address the core problem of American’s political divide, the fear of lost identity that is driving a material portion of the Republican party. As Yoni Applebaum warns:

That fear is the single greatest threat facing American democracy, the force that is already battering down precedents, leveling norms, and demolishing guardrails. When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has—whatever the cost.

If that fight is carried to its logical conclusion, American democracy is screwed. The old White, Christian, patriarchal hegemony isn’t coming back without installing a fascist government. To avoid that we must find some way to deescalate the fear.

It will not be easy. We don’t have to apologize for “intellectual arrogance” if we bridle at people who deny climate change or believe that anyone not following a particular subset of Christian rules is a threat to society. These are simply wrong. But if the last 15 years have taught us anything, it is that belittling these ideas does not lead to a better democracy. Seems as likely to lead to even nuttier ideas.

Instead, while picking on a few of the folks who are really far out there, we need to double down on issues that everyone cares about—jobs, families, houses, education for their kids, a sense of community—which does seem to be the Biden strategy. I am not suggesting there is a straightforward path where if Democrats are able to pass some benefit-spreading bills, then Republicans will behave. For openers passing such measures will be obstructed by a Republican party that knows it will be harder to scare those voters into hating Democrats if the Democrats are meeting real needs.

Moreover, it’s not clear Republican leaders could control their base if they wanted to. Many people voting Republican are operating from a base of fear much more primal than mere policy. Cancel culture, political correctness, socialism, elites and Democrats are simply interchangeable words. While there are some legitimate concerns in these concepts, the fears they apparently generate are materially disproportionate to any actual risk.

There is an attempt to cloak these fears in a vague argument about being economically abandoned by “the elite”. The transparency of such arguments is annoying. There are many people facing economic challenges and Democrats may have made some mistakes. But Republican votes are what have stood in the way of improved economic conditions for large swathes of the country. What in truth seems to really drive the base is fear that benefits might be extended to people they consider unworthy. So they are adamant about choosing largely symbolic freedoms as antidotes to the erosion of privileged racial and social standing. Having stoked these fears for 50 years, Republican leadership may have no choice but to follow the base if they want to maintain power.

For all these problems, maintaining a high degree of policy focus must still be part of a Democratic strategy because it is the only way to demonstrate the advantage of progress over fear. It may be a rickety bridge across the divide, but it is wishful thinking to expect a sudden conversion.

Grow Political Power

This sounds axiomatic. But Democrats have done a terrible job. They have believed policy ideas, especially ones that are in fact popular, would carry the day. Here again, we should borrow from the Republican playbook. Jerry Taylor, a Republican strategist, crowed about the difference between Democrats and Republicans.

Regardless of what the campaign that brought them into office was about, conservatives invariably attend to policy initiatives designed to cripple Democratic power … Democrats, on the other hand, rarely spend political capital on these matters.

Most important is passing HR 1, the national voting rights act already passed by the House, but with no Republican votes. Mitch McConnell describes it thusly:

Every single proposed change in HR 1 serves one goal, and one goal only: to give leftists a permanent, unfair, and unconstitutional advantage in our political system.

Not only is this balderdash, even for McConnell this is flabbergasting hypocrisy, coming amid an orgy of Republican sponsored measures in states to make voting more difficult. This bill is the most important bill in Congress this year. The American political structure already is so biased toward maintaining the status quo that making it easier for voters to exercise their franchise is a minimal step. To call democracy “unfair” is in fact breathtaking.

But Democrats cannot rely on this law alone. They much organize and turn out every vote in every election, up and down the ballot, with the same intensity that they did in the 2020 presidential, starting now for 2022 mid-terms. Focusing on the every-four-year presidential election is not enough to save the country. Republicans have already shown that they will continue to organize up and down the ballot in systematic and energetic ways. Unless Democrats do likewise, Republicans will continue to exercise an outsized influence in blocking policies that the majority of citizens want.

Already, Democrats seem to have let the redistricting for the next ten years slip beyond their reach—Republicans control 29 legislatures and it is a sure bet they will use those to their advantage. Already 18% of Americans live in a state where at least one house of the state legislature is controlled by a party that did not win the majority of votes. We need a plan for 2030.

In short

None of these strategies by itself is sufficient. But each of them will pick up a few voters. If those voters are enough to allow policy steps that clearly do benefit the majority of Americans, there is a chance white grievance can be tamed. If not, at best we will face continued gridlock in government. At worst….well, let’s just not go there.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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