A Fork in The Road
In the wake of a Biden-Harris victory, GOP officials have a difficult choice to make. For the past four years, Republicans have engaged in verbal gymnastics as they’ve been forced to defend the sometimes indefensible President Trump. Now, with the results of the election fairly certain, Republicans have to decide whether or not they should jump off the “Trump Train” and face retribution from the enraged MAGA crowd, or stick with Mr. Trump until the bitter end and potentially cement their place on the wrong side of history.
However, lost in all the chaos after the election, is the equally dire choice that the Democrats face. While they may have taken the presidency in what turned out to be a referendum on Mr. Trump rather than a mandate for Mr. Biden, they underperformed in the Senate and lost seats in the House. Democrats and pundits alike predicted a “blue wave”- the results proved otherwise. Even in California, one of the most left-leaning states in the country, voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative supported by Democrats that would have allowed racial bias in college admissions. While the MAGA sycophants have wrongly pointed to the down-ballot success of Republicans as evidence of fraud at the presidential level, it was actually a sign that the Democrats are stuck in an existential crisis.
For the past four years, the Democrats have been able to avoid settling in on any specific policy agenda, instead entirely focusing on eliminating the President from office. Now that they have successfully accomplished that goal, the Democratic message is unclear going forward. Mr. Biden wants to restore “decency” to the White House (i.e. return to the pre-Trump status quo), while the progressive wing wants to enact radical change from the tax code to the health care system.
The loudest members of the Democratic caucus (Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad) are pulling the party to the far left, and it is costing them support in the battleground districts across the country. In the fallout of Democratic House losses last week, moderate members of the caucus exploded on a caucus-wide phone call. Moderate Democrat Rep. Abigail Spanberger stated that “we need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. ... We lost good members because of that.” In that statement, Rep. Spanberger highlighted the challenge that the Democrats face heading forward: they have to choose between the unifying style of government that Mr. Biden calls for, or the radical progressive reforms that Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren call for.
Recent history can tell us a little about what may happen if the Democrats decide to embrace “big government” progressive reforms. In 2008, former President Barack Obama took office with a unified government and a vision to enact sweeping healthcare reform. While his policy, the Affordable Care Act, was less progressive than the reforms called for by the current progressive wing of the Democratic party, it was nonetheless labeled as a “socialist” policy by a grassroots movement of conservatives, dubbed the Tea Party. Despite the backlash against the policy, Mr. Obama persisted and was able to pass the ACA through both houses of Congress with a razor-thin partisan margin, having the exact 60 votes needed to break the Senate filibuster. Enraged by this hyperpartisan reform, Tea Party Republicans effectively branded Mr. Obama and his Democratic peers as anti-American “socialists”. The 2010 midterm elections were a massacre- 63 seats were flipped red, the largest shift in more than half a century. The American people collectively rejected the perceived Democratic shift towards partisan “socialism” in a way that ended up crippling the latter six years of the Obama administration and gave rise to the President Trump populist era.
Brass tacks, most Americans do not support socialism as it is popularly understood. While President Trump may be unpopular, socialism is at least equally unpopular. Gallup recently reported that 57% of Americans have a negative view of socialism, and a Monmouth poll recently found that 57% of Americans believe socialism is not compatible with American values. The same is true when it comes to the “Defund the Police” movement: a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll found 64% of Americans do not support defunding the police. In some cases, it is true that Americans like the ideas behind the progressive slogans more than the slogans themselves.
Unfortunately for progressives, when it comes to the ballot our electorate relies more on slogans and cues and less on developed policy goals (look no further than Sen. Warren’s failed presidential bid for evidence). Thus, as long as the concept of socialism remains unpopular among Americans, and Democrats maintain support for massive spending packages, major tax hikes, and other progressive policies, they open themselves up to grave political liability. Republicans will continue to label Democrats as radical “socialists”, and Americans will continue to reject “socialist” ideals on the ballot.
Heading out of the current economic crisis and into 2022 midterm season, the last thing the Democrats need is to be seen as the party that has stunted the roaring recovery with socialist policies. The Democrats ought to have an advantage heading forward, given that the GOP path ahead in the post-Trump world is uncertain to say the least. They need to capitalize on the momentum from a presidential win and find a way to make steady Democrats out of moderate voters who went for Mr. Biden as a rebuke of Mr. Trump. Heading forward, the Democrats need to give moderates a reason to vote blue other than “we aren’t Trump.” For Mr. Biden, he has yet to establish a clear policy agenda. His best bet would be to start with goals that are popular amongst average Americans: reasonable COVID-19 relief, common sense gun control, and decriminalizing marijuana.
If the Democrats hope to maintain their House majority in 2022 and potentially take the Senate, they would do well to heed Rep. Spanberg’s advice and adjust their rhetoric to match what the average American is looking for: incremental change, not a radical socialist revolution.