Elections in Virginia and New Jersey earlier this month were devastating for Democrats. A statewide Republican sweep in Virginia cast off former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s aspirations for a second term at the helm, and Gov. Phil Murphy faced a near cataclysmic rebuttal to his re-election hopes and will govern with reduced majorities in the state legislature.
Many politicians in the Democratic establishment deemed the unexpected surge of Republican vote-share in these two liberal bastions a gut punch. Already, conservatives such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have commented on Democrats overstepping their mandate to govern from voters in 2020. Meanwhile, Democrats have turned on each other with copious finger-wagging from moderates and progressives over who is to blame for the party’s poor electoral performance. Yet, it’s likely much of the Democrats’ electoral pitfalls can be attributed to their obsession with critiquing former President Donald Trump; instead, they should address the issues facing everyday Americans by using their federal trifecta to pass substantive legislation like the Build Back Better Act.
One of the critical missteps by Democrats in these recent gubernatorial elections was an inordinate focus on Trump. During the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election, a key Democratic selling point was a break from the chaos of the Trump years. Though it was effective, the tactic now rings hollow, as Democrats are in control of all levers of government. Rather, Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey who flourished during the Trump years should have focused on some truly novel policies they implemented in their states. Murphy, along with the Democratic majorities in the state legislature, accomplished a great deal, including raising the minimum wage to $15 and doubling paid leave from six to twelve weeks. Meanwhile, McAuliffe had the opportunity to champion his former lieutenant governor and current Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s efforts to increase gun rights restrictions, lower the racial wealth gaps, reform the state’s criminal justice system and pass various social-care policy measures. But you wouldn’t know about these feats from either of their campaigns.
Instead, both McAuliffe and Murphy prodded their moderate Republican opponents, investment banker Glenn Youngkin and former state Rep. Jack Ciattarelli (R-N.J.), respectively, with accusations they’d be Trump in different shoes. Rather than run on what they accomplished or wished to accomplish, they set out on a fear-mongering campaign on abortion rights, inflated COVID-19 numbers and ignored parent concerns on education rights. Youngkin and Ciattarelli tapped into the wellspring of voter support on issues ranging from education to a stagnant economic recovery, picking at moderate Biden voters across the suburbs. This underscores the Democratic Party’s desperate need to disassociate itself away from the retributive and fear-based campaigning of the Trump years and return to kitchen-table issues that matter.
Democrats can regain their standing by using their legislative majorities to tackle the wide-ranging complaints from Americans across the board, such as inflation and supply chain issues. While the Federal Reserve may believe that inflation is transitory, its effects are still being felt acutely. Gas prices have skyrocketed. But many of these issues aren’t Biden’s or the Democrats’ fault, as most have been around before Biden was elected.
Current economic problems are a result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s lingering effects on the global economy. Whether these issues are Biden’s fault or not is irrelevant — voters blame the president in power. Democrats, with a trifecta, aren’t powerless to fix these problems. These issues can still be addressed by the Democrats. In fact, the White House has claimed that passing their Build Back Better Act would help to curtail inflation.
Biden has spent the last few months focusing on the congressional process, trying to sway hesitant moderate and frustrated progressive Democrats to embrace his agenda. Unfortunately, deal-making is the last thing on voters’ minds, as they face inflation, conflicting guidance on school reopenings and rising crime rates across the country. Biden’s flagship legislative proposals, which include a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a party-line climate and social spending proposal, have been mired down in inter-party conflict.
This gridlock has brought Biden’s congressional Democrats’ approval down to new lows. The fate of Democrats running for lower positions is inextricably linked to that of the sitting president. In order for Democrats to succeed, Biden needs to succeed. Instead of using their power to help people quickly and boldly, Democrats have chosen to squabble among themselves. But voters don’t care if Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) or House progressives are the ones impeding progress. All they know is that Democrats aren’t getting done what they promised they would.
Democrats are facing tough congressional and state elections next year. Without improving their approval among the American people, Democrats will almost certainly suffer more devastating losses. To win back the trust of voters, they need to focus on what matters: passing legislation that helps everyday Americans and telling them about it at every opportunity. The passage of the infrastructure bill and a planned intensive sales campaign suggest Democrats are starting to learn this lesson. But to survive the midterms, the infrastructure bill won’t be enough.
Democrats will need to pass more impactful legislation like the Build Back Better Act. The $1.75 trillion proposal contains dozens of impactful provisions, including providing universal pre-K, addressing supply chain issues and helping families afford child care. Democrats have the ability to help people from virtually every background and to help themselves while doing it. Yet, as it stands right now Democrats seem set on squabbling and fulfilling Trump’s moniker of the “do-nothing Democrats.”
Demetrios Mammas (23C) is from Atlanta, Georgia. Daniel Matin (25C) is from Franklin, Tennessee.