Op-Ed: Democrats try a new campaign strategy — getting things done
The most worried political junkies in America these days may be those never-Trump former Republicans who put their hopes in the Democratic Party. They’re terrified that Democrats are incapable of winning when and where it matters most. Right now that means every election in 2022 and 2024 that involves Donald Trump as an anti-democracy cheerleader or, worst case, as a candidate himself.
I’m not saying my new ex-GOP friends should relax, because I understand their trepidation. The stakes, and Trump’s rhetoric, never stop escalating. The FBI execution of a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home has unleashed outright threats of retaliation or violence, some from people who should know much, much better.
At the same time, of the many weird dynamics this year, there is this one: Democrats have been acting like Republicans lately. They’ve been strategic, disciplined and tough — racking up accomplishments that will affect people’s lives, jobs and health; strengthen America, its allies and its institutions; and make historic investments in clean energy as climate change threatens the Earth. They are not performing shock theater. They and President Biden are governing.
In the past few days Democrats have managed a feat that is routine in GOP circles: From moderates to progressives, from Los Angeles to New York City and suburbia to West Virginia, they stuck together on the Inflation Reduction Act once known (and once much more expensive) as Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. It was their last chance before the midterms to pass some of Biden’s social and climate agenda, and even Democrats upset about how it turned out voted for it anyway. It cleared the Senate 51-50 and the House 220-207, and now goes to Biden’s desk with not a single GOP vote for it.
The question is whether this is enough.
There are signs of Democrats showing unusual strategic spine. For instance, in a Republican primary campaign in western Michigan, Democrats spent more than $400,000 on an ad that attacked Trump-endorsed House candidate John Gibbs, an election denier who worked in the Trump administration. In reality, Democrats were trying to raise Gibbs’ profile and help him defeat Rep. Peter Meijer, who had voted to impeach Trump and whom they viewed as a tougher general election opponent in a toss-up district. Gibbs did beat Meijer, perhaps at least partly thanks to the Democrats’ meddling, even as some blasted them for helping oust a principled Republican.
I get the moral qualms, but not the political ones. This is a district that leans slightly Democratic. A win this fall by either Gibbs or Meijer would help put Republican election objectors and deniers in charge of the House, its committees and a wave of revenge investigations. So why not try to raise the odds a Democrat will win? This is politics, not church. Keeping the pro-democracy party in power is paramount when the alternative is Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) as House speaker and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) as Judiciary chairman.
The Kansas abortion referendum, in which 59% voted not to remove abortion protections from the state constitution, is another example of smart Democratic politics. One ad to keep the protections showed a COVID mask mandate sign as part of an appeal to opponents of government mandates and intrusion in private medical decisions. Another featured a doctor saying the amendment is dangerous and “ties the hands of doctors in Kansas.” In a third, a woman says her 3-year-old and her husband “needed me to be very much so alive.” If she hadn’t had an abortion, “they would be without their mother and wife.” All the spots showed a pencil filling in the “no” vote.
Analyst Josh Barro, a former Republican, said he was heartened by the ad campaign. “Democrats demonstrated the ability to run a calculated, poll-tested campaign that is built around the views and concerns of the mass electorate that is wary of what would happen if abortion were banned,” he wrote. “It shows that the party can prioritize winning over intra-coalition posturing when it really counts.”
Senate Democrats managed to find their inner Mitch McConnell after the Senate Republican leader from Kentucky threatened that if Democrats continued to work toward a separate party-line deal on health costs, climate and taxes, he would block the CHIPS Act meant to bolster U.S. semiconductor chip production, research and competitiveness. The Democratic package seemed dead of infighting, and the CHIPS bill passed with bipartisan support. But just a few hours after that, when McConnell had lost his leverage, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Energy chairman Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) announced they did indeed have a deal — and now that Democrats have passed it, Biden plans to sign it next week.
The latest example of party unity on the GOP side is lashing out at law enforcement about the Mar-a-Lago search. They know nothing about the reasons and they know all about Trump’s lifelong pattern of openly flouting rules and laws. It’s Oscar-worthy performance politics that stoke real life dangers.
People say they care about inflation and the postal service and health costs. They seem fired up about the loss of the national right to an abortion. These are real issues. But all of that substance is competing with the theatrics of Trump versus the FBI and “woke” America. With supporters who suggest hanging the judge who issued the Mar-a-Lago search warrant. With elected officials who tweet with vague menace (as McCarthy did) that Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland had better preserve his records and clear his calendar.
The Democrats have a solid record to sell. It may not be as exciting as the constant drama Trump provokes, but I hope most Americans will see the plain threat before them and vote accordingly. And I hope Garland and that Florida judge have very good protection.
Jill Lawrence is a writer, an editor and the author of “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock.” @JillDLawrence
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