Failure Of Leadership
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That pretty much describes Democrats reaction to the 2020 election. Biden’s victory over Trump was an historic and overwhelming achievement, only the fourth time in over a century that a challenger had beaten an elected incumbent president. Biden’s popular vote margin of victory by percentage will be the largest for any challenger since FDR beat Hoover back in 1932. And yet, Democrats’ down-ballot losses in the House, the Senate, and state legislatures are a harbinger for the worst of times.
In the House, an expected dozen or so seat gain looks likely to turn into losses of a similar amount or more. The Democrats’ majority in the House will be one of the slimmer margins in recent history, providing additional challenges for the Speaker. In the Senate, hopes for at least a comfortable two or three seat majority were dashed with brutal losses in Maine, North Carolina, Iowa, and Montana. Hope for control with a 50-50 Senate and VP Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote rest on winning two races in Georgia in January. At the state level, where hopes were running high to make inroads against Republican control in places like Texas, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and North Carolina, Democrats not only failed to flip a single legislative chamber but lost their majority in both chambers in New Hampshire.
The recriminations for the down-ballot failures have already begun but it will probably be a while before a full analysis of the reasons are pinned down. As we saw in 2016, initial impressions are often misleading. With that said, some trends do seem apparent. This election was clearly a referendum on Trump and it created the highest turnout by percentage in over a century and, by raw numbers, the most voters ever. Turnout was up for both Democrats and Republicans, for both Biden and Trump supporters.
In such an environment, it would seem that Democrats were overestimating their ability to hold those moderate swing seats won in 2018 in districts that Trump had won in 2016. That would also seem to indicate that the moderates’ claims that “socialism” and “defund the police” were what cost them their elections are a bit overblown, especially when there was no Democratic candidate who was actually running on those issues. Democrats have had to deal with Republican attacks based on socialism and law and order for decades and every Democratic candidate should be prepared to refute it at this point. In addition, there is nothing in the polling, which admittedly was once again massively off target, that indicates “defund the police” had a substantial impact. And, in fact, in South Florida, the Republican ads on socialism focused on linking Biden to Maduro and Castro, not Bernie or AOC.
The fact that the election was a referendum on Trump created other problems for down-ballot Democrats. First, the Biden campaign’s primary message was that the election was a fight for the soul of the nation and an opportunity to heal the divisions created by an incompetent and divisive Trump. While effective for defeating Trump, that was hardly the kind of policy and partisan platform that was going to carry a lot of down-ballot Democrats. In retrospect, it appears that the blue wave of 2018 in at least the House was also a referendum on Trump and back then moderate swing district Republicans were willing to vote for a Democrat in order to restrain the President. In 2020, those Republicans were happy to vote against Trump but, with the assumption that Biden would win based on available polling, were also happy to revert to supporting the Republican candidate for House and/or Senate as a constraint on Biden.
That also speaks to a strategic error by Democratic congressional leaders. If the election was going to be nationalized, then it was incumbent on Democrats to tie congressional Republicans to Trump’s divisiveness and corruption. Instead, both Pelosi and Schumer felt that they could simply reprise the 2018 election and focused the Democrats’ congressional message on healthcare. And Republicans were able to somewhat blunt that approach by simply lying, claiming that, whatever happened, they would protect pre-existing conditions
Pelosi, in particular, in what in hindsight was a futile effort to protect her vulnerable swing state members, consistently demurred in aggressively pursuing Trump’s corruption and the Republican complicity in that. Pelosi slow-walked the legal pursuit of the numerous subpoenas that Trump administration officials were defying. She refused to pursue the strands of the Mueller investigation after it was released and was finally forced to begin impeachment hearings over Ukraine by the same moderates she had been protecting. But, again, the impeachment hearings were narrowly focused on Ukraine and not on the broader corruption in the administration, all abetted by congressional Republicans. There was little investigation into the rampant corruption that continued post-impeachment, especially related to the pandemic response. Schumer, for his part, tried to make the Amy Coney Barrett hearings about healthcare rather than focusing on the hypocritical corruption of the process that McConnell was engaged in. Those hearings, particularly the legitimacy that Diane Feinstein gave them, turned out to be a boon to the electoral prospects of both Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins.
Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but things might look a lot different if House Democrats had spent hours holding hearings about why two-thirds of Trump’s farm aid was going to just 10% of recipients while small farmers struggled to survive. Or if Pelosi had staffed the pandemic bailout oversight committee with aggressive investigators rather than an ethically-compromised moderate and had the committee expose how the relief was bypassing small businesses in favor of the administration’s plutocratic supporters. Or if there had been some serious investigation of insider trading based on the initial private briefings on COVID-19 which implicated four Republican Senators including the two Senators from Georgia that Democrats need to now defeat to control that chamber. Yes, Diane Feinstein was implicated as well, but she is not up for re-election and is headed for retirement anyway. Or if there had been hearings or investigations into what exactly a handful of GOP Senators were doing in Moscow on July 4, 2018; or how the GOP’s effort to lift Russian sanctions ended with aluminum giant Rusal opening a plant in Kentucky. Or if there was pursuit of the rampant corruption into Kushner’s protective equipment team that could have further exposed the hypocrisy and complicity of Republicans in acquitting Trump in an impeachment inquiry that was more broadly focused on such corruption. I could go on…
Another complicating factor was that this election was held in the middle of a pandemic. Biden’s campaign was largely virtual, making it difficult to fully connect with voters. There is also some evidence that the Democrats’ decision to forego in-person voter outreach while the GOP did not may have played a factor in these down-ballot races. In addition, while stronger Republican showings in South Florida and the Texas Rio Grande Valley may initially indicate the GOP is making inroads with Hispanics, I think we will find that the GOP received about its normal level of Hispanic support this election. Certainly the Hispanic vote was key in delivering Arizona to Biden.
But beyond the misplaced tactics of the 2020 election, there is a belief across the ideological spectrum of the Democratic party that congressional leadership is not focused on building the structures to actually win elections. Soon to be ex-Senator Doug Jones, hardly a flame-throwing progressive, says, “DSCC and DCCC spend too much time investing in candidates and not the electorate. They don’t invest in House districts, they don’t invest in states”. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a straight-talking progressive, says, “If you’re not door-knocking, if you’re not on the internet, if your main points of reliance are TV and mail, then you’re not running a campaign on all cylinders…Our party isn’t even online, not in a real way that exhibits competence. And so, yeah, they were vulnerable to these messages, because they weren’t even on the mediums where these messages were most potent…There’s a reason Barack Obama built an entire national campaign apparatus outside of the Democratic National Committee. And there’s a reason that when he didn’t activate or continue that, we lost House majorities. Because the party — in and of itself — does not have the core competencies, and no amount of money is going to fix that”. She also added, “If you are the D.C.C.C., and you’re hemorrhaging incumbent candidates to progressive insurgents, you would think that you may want to use some of those firms. But instead, we banned them. So the D.C.C.C. banned every single firm that is the best in the country at digital organizing”.
Beto O’Rourke added his two cents, writing, “The failure to invest in year-round canvassing – so that voters just don’t hear from us during an election – made it harder for us to move voters at the end…The central messaging that many Democratic candidates felt obligated to adopt (because they believe that funding and other support from Democratic organizations was contingent on it) doesn’t work…We have to be more effective on digital and social media”.
It certainly seems like no coincidence that some of the critical states that Biden flipped were ones where Democrats had been building an institutional infrastructure for years. As Chris Murphy noted, “Why does NV move into the Democratic column more quickly than other Southwestern states? It’s because Harry Reid built the permanent political organization. Why does Georgia look different than FL and NC? B/c of Stacey Abrams”. It is hard to imagine that Biden would have won in Wisconsin without the organizational work of Ben Winkler. That is surely doubly true of Stacey Abrams in Georgia. The decade of work organizing Latino voters in Arizona along with a strong turnout from Native Americans finally flipped that state and has now given Democrats two Democratic Senators. The canvassing efforts of Ilhan Omar in Minneapolis and Rashida Tlaib in Detroit helped deliver Minnesota and Michigan to Biden. And Harry Reid built a lasting Democratic majority in Nevada by working with organized labor and making sustained investments in organizing. Almost all of this was done outside of the Democratic party establishment.
It is this lack of a permanent political organization and the constant in-person outreach it can provide which makes flipping those state houses so difficult for Democrats. As one outside supporter of the Democratic efforts noted, “The candidate that knocks on more doors in a state legislative race is going to outperform the district”, adding that this year because of the pandemic, “We’ve never before had a scenario where one party did it and the other party didn’t”.
Donald Trump has dominated our politics for the last five years primarily through the use of Twitter, targeted Facebook campaigns, and free media appearances, especially on cable. This year, an extra 30 million or so people came out to vote who didn’t vote in 2016 and virtually all of them were driven by Trump, either for him or against him, in an election where he could not articulate a second term agenda and his party did not even have a platform. So it is perhaps emblematic of the structural problems the Democratic party has that a media adviser for even liberal PACs is saying, “It turns out the effects of canvassing are much lower than people think. The effects of sending get-out-the-vote mail is lower than people think. The effects of these large-scale organizing programs are much less than people think…I think if you do a rigorous analysis of all of the different modes, it would still tell the story that television is generally the most cost-effective way to win votes…So the median voter in the presidential election is about 50 years old, watches about six hours of TV a day, and mostly gets their news from mainstream sources. And that means that, if you want to influence what this person believes, you’re probably not going to get them at the door or even through a paid message. They’re going to form their opinions based on how the media reports on and characterizes the parties”.
As horrible as he is, like Reagan before him, Trump somehow inexplicably manages to be a great communicator, even when the actual text of his words is gibberish. And he never passes up the opportunity to look like he’s fighting for his base and blaming Democrats for what hasn’t been done. The Democratic leadership is not good at any of that. This year, for example, “Mitch McConnell’s do-nothing Senate” should have been drilled into the American psyche. Joe Biden has described himself as a transitional candidate, a bridge to a new generation of Democratic leaders. It is time for that transition to happen with the Democratic congressional leadership. Nancy Pelosi is 80 years old as is Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn; Chuck Schumer is 69 and Dick Durbin is 75. With the possible exception of Clyburn and Durbin, and even that’s a reach, none of them are even good communicators.
With Democrats winning the under 40-vote and dominating the under 30-vote, it might be nice for those voters to see someone representing the party that does not look like their grandparents. If Democrats are worried about a shrinking Hispanic vote, it might help to feature more than just Ben Ray Lujan as part of the leadership team. Even moderates like Elissa Slotkin are unhappy with Pelosi’s leadership and plan to vote against her, but there does not seem to be any one candidate to take her place. The same is true with Schumer in the Senate. Instead, it appears that the core Democratic leadership team in both chambers will remain virtually intact. It is yet another example of the lack of accountability for elites’ failures, the consequences of which are always borne by the rest of us.
This election was a battle to save our democracy from a kleptocratic autocrat who is even to this day enabled and abetted by a corrupt Republican party. But Democratic congressional leaders treated this election as a policy dispute with a Republican party acting in good faith when in fact the GOP is an extremist anti-democratic party with QAnon believers and Hitler admirers now representing it in Congress and exemplified by McConnell’s statement to Obama that “You must be under the mistaken impression that I care”. Throughout the last two years, Democratic leadership seemed afraid of poking the bear of the Trump base but that base and more showed up on election day. And now they apparently have no plan to deal with the structural impediments to actually winning elections other than continually trying to “move to the center”, even as the “center” moves farther and farther right. Unless the party changes its approach, that is not an encouraging sign for future elections.
Which brings us to the worst of times that possibly lies ahead. With no clear majority in the Senate and the inability to eliminate the filibuster, it will be impossible to make the structural changes in our democracy that will break the entrenched rule of the Republican minority. A sabotaged census and Republicans’ plans to redistrict only using eligible voters instead of population will permit more even more egregious partisan gerrymandering, allowing Republicans to hold state legislative chambers even when Democrats win the most votes, as happened in North Carolina this year and Wisconsin in 2018. It will also probably increase the 19 seat advantage Republicans get from partisan gerrymandering in the House. Combine that with the typical losses for the party controlling the White House in an off year election, it’s quite possible that Democrats lose the House in 2022. While the Senate map in 2022 looks like Democrats could potentially pick up a couple of seats, the opposite is true in 2024 when Democrats in red states like Jon Tester, Joe Manchin, and Sherrod Brown will be up for re-election. Whether Mitch McConnell controls the Senate or not, he will do everything in his power to make sure that Biden is a one-term president, just as he attempted to do with Obama. After all, almost total obstruction has been a highly successful tactic for Republicans for the last decade. And all of this is against a backdrop of a hostile and activist Supreme Court if Justice Alito’s partisan and political rant at the Federalist Society is any indication.
In other words, the country may be looking at another lost decade where near existential problems like climate change and rampant inequality do not get addressed. The core Republican base will believe that this election was stolen by the Democrats and will be ripe for Trump or another Trump-like figure to avenge their defeat. Joe Biden’s election may have won the current battle to save American democracy today but it is almost certain that that war will continue in the decade ahead.