Democratic moderates have a game plan for surviving the midterms

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Democrats running for reelection this year in conservative-leaning districts are clearly worried about their futures. A small group of them including Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elissa Slotkin have pulled together a plan designed to help them survive the midterms by insulating themselves from cultural issues that have proven effective for the GOP.


With their wafer-thin congressional majority and a president whose approval ratings are mired around 42 percent, Democrats are facing formidable headwinds in November’s midterm elections. The document, though stuffed with actual legislation, is more notable for its political message than for its policy details — in part because it omits any mention of how to pay for its initiatives…

The agenda’s authors hope to at least revive a sense of momentum in a Democratic Congress that has entered the doldrums since enactment of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law in November, followed by the Senate’s stymying of House-passed climate and social safety net legislation and a far-reaching voting rights bill.

In other words, the actual contents may not matter much. The point of this plan is to signal that moderate Dems have rejected all of the issues that have gotten the party in trouble lately, from defunding the police to mask mandates to inflation:

Rather than proposing cuts to funding for police departments, for example, it suggests financing the hiring of additional officers, especially in rural and small-town departments — though it would also fund body cameras and training, demands from liberal critics of law enforcement. Taking on Republican efforts to end mask mandates and school closures, the agenda includes legislation to “re-establish faith in America’s public health system and ensure preparedness for future pandemics, so that our economy and schools can remain open.”…

To beat back inflation, one bill the group is pushing would “prohibit” foreign governments from participating in cartel-like activities, a hit at OPEC that would have no real impact.


Over at the Washington Post, Paul Waldman says the moderate agenda shows Democrats are being defensive when they should go on offense:

Once again, Democrats are entering a defensive crouch: They’re being pummeled mercilessly, and they think that rather than hit back, the answer is to hold a 10-point plan over their heads…

If some guy tells the congresswoman he doesn’t want his third-grader being forced to pledge allegiance to Ibram X. Kendi while renouncing her gender identity, which is what he thinks happens in the local elementary school every day, the sensible thing would be to say, “Buzz off with your ludicrous lies — I’m not going to waste a second of my time on you.”…

Now imagine she has to do that day after day, over and over, because her district is full of people like that.

She’ll wind up thinking that the only way for her to get reelected is to convince voters she doesn’t support mandated critical race theory indoctrination or forced gender reassignment. She’ll believe that the culture war is something she needs to defuse, not something she might be able to win.

I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with anything Paul Waldman has written so no surprise I think he’s wrong about this. His argument is basically that for every culture war argument Republicans offer, Democrats shouldn’t respond with denial but should offer culture war attacks of their own. He’s counseling whataboutism as an electoral strategy.


The reason that won’t work is that Democrats are fundamentally wrong about what is going on here. Criticisms of CRT in schools can be dismissed as cultural warfare but the closing of schools for 18 months, which damaged untold numbers of real children, is not a talking point. People are angry about a real thing that happened to their families with the support of left-leaning teachers unions.

Similarly, GOP attacks on “defund the police” aren’t just part of the culture war against BLM. In voters’ minds the rush to demonize police is connected to a worrisome spike in violent crime in which real people are being harmed or killed. They are seeing the results on the local news every night.

Paul Waldman may not get what is happening but Jeff Greenfield does. In a piece published yesterday at Politico, he argued that Democrats who think what’s needed is a better messaging or more raw emotion are clueless.

All sides of the debate agree that Democrats are currently losing the culture war to the GOP. But the harsh reality is that a simple shift in messaging — either to rebutting Republican attacks or shifting the ground to economic issues — won’t be enough to save Democrats come November. Democrats are the ones in power, and people need to feel their lives are improved. It will take deeds, not words — along with a generous dose of good fortune — to stave off a midterm disaster…

For liberal author and columnist Paul Waldman, such talk reflects “a dangerous fantasy that has gripped Democrats for decades, the idea that they can drain the emotion out of politics by focusing on concerns that are immediate and mundane, and thereby stave off defeat….” What Democrats need, he argues, is to reflect emotion, real anger.


Greenfield says the bottom line here is that better messaging won’t help. What’s needed is actual improvement in the situation:

Maybe a turnaround depends less on the right rhetorical tools, and more on… events on the ground.

Last week’s recall of three San Francisco Board of Education members, who had kept schools closed for months and spent hours trying to remove the names of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln from schools, was a singular event: a landslide vote that was at least in part against “hyper-wokeness” in the most liberal city in America, with the full support of London Breed, the liberal Black woman mayor.

Across the continent in the other most liberal city in America, new Mayor Eric Adams, a Black veteran of the city’s police force, has been striking a strong anti-crime posture, ranging from a relatively generous police budget to resisting the new Manhattan District Attorney’s plan to shun the prosecution of low-level felonies.

If you think having two liberal, Black, big-city, crime-fighting mayors does not suggest a political asset for Democrats, you might want to grab an Uber back to Planet Earth.

I think Greenfield is basically correct though the truth is that the mayors of San Francisco and New York haven’t actually demonstrated any real improvement yet. What they have demonstrated is an awareness that there’s a problem that involves bad policy advice coming from the far left of their own party (on schools and on crime respectively).


Without the ability to actually change the situation on the ground, the best moderate Dems in the House can do right now is probably what they are trying to do with the game plan mentioned above, i.e. they can signal that they know the far left is a problem and that they’re willing to work against them. That’s not a real result but it’s at least a sign they are aware of which direction voters want them to go.

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