Democrats mull how to fight amid latest GOP culture wars

Demonstrators protest the "Don't Say Gay" bill in Floriday
Associated Press/Wilfredo Lee
Demonstrators gather to speak on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol on March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Republicans are going on the offensive on LGBTQ issues, with the White House and its allies struggling to unite around a response. 

Republicans have leaned into “culture war” issues in recent years, choosing as their latest front legislation in Florida and elsewhere that polices discussion in schools about gender and sexual orientation. 

While the Biden administration has offered some pushback, some Democratic strategists and lawmakers see risks in not more forcefully countering the GOP line of attack. 

“If you allow someone to call you something and you don’t fight back, after a while people start to believe it. Democrats haven’t learned that before. You can’t let people define you,” said Michael Starr Hopkins, a progressive strategist. 

Republicans at the state level have passed multiple bills over the past year targeting transgender athletes and criminalizing gender-affirming care for minors. 

Now multiple states are looking to emulate legislation in Florida, branded by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, that would bar discussion of sexual orientation in elementary schools across the state. Republicans argue the discussion of LGBTQ issues is not age-appropriate for those students. 

Some conservatives, including a spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), have gone even farther, arguing that those who oppose the bill are sexualizing children and painting Democrats broadly with allegations of “grooming.” While the claims are baseless, they have circulated throughout the conservative movement in recent weeks. 

Among the Democrats vocally pushing back is Mallory McMorrow, a Michigan state senator who gained national attention last week for a floor speech in which she denounced a GOP colleague who accused her in a fundraising email of seeking to “groom and sexualize” children.  

The remarks caught the eye of national Democrats including President Biden, who phoned McMorrow to thank her for saying “what needed to be said,” McMorrow told The Hill in an interview Tuesday.  

McMorrow, who in her speech emphasized her identity as a Christian wife and mother, said that Democrats need to be more willing to call out what she described as hateful behavior toward members of the LGBTQ community and manufactured culture war issues meant to stir up fear and anger.

“We have to call hate hate … and tell people this is a deflection because these people have no solutions for you,” she told The Hill. “It’s a deflection and it’s scapegoating, and I think we have every right to stand in that space and call it what it is.”  

For its part, the White House has issued written statements condemning controversial bills in Florida and Texas as anti-transgender.  

Last week, during a pair of fundraisers on the West Coast, Biden criticized Florida Republicans for targeting Disney over its opposition to “Don’t Say Gay.” 

“I respect conservatives. There’s nothing conservative about deciding you’re going to throw Disney out of its present posture because — Mickey Mouse? In fact, do you think we should not be able to say, you know, ‘gay’?” Biden said in Seattle Thursday.  

“I mean, what’s going on here? What the hell is going on? And it’s just, it’s so, I don’t believe it’s where the vast majority of the American people are,” he said.  

Principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters it was “unfortunate” that Republicans would rather “have a culture war” than focus on issues affecting American families. 

Polling has painted an inconsistent picture of public attitudes on the Florida legislation. A Morning Consult-Politico survey released last month found that a slim majority — 51 percent — of voters support a ban on teaching gender identity and sexual orientation between kindergarten and third grade. An earlier ABC News-Ipsos poll, however, found that 6 in 10 Americans oppose legislation that would ban such lessons in elementary school. 

Adam Parkhomenko, a Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton aide, argued that national Democrats need to do more to lift up local voices like those of McMorrow and Karen Berg, a Democratic state senator in Kentucky who is the mother of a transgender child and has railed against legislation barring transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams.  

“I think that the most effective thing that Democrats from a national standpoint can do is to echo, mirror and lift up local Democrats,” Parkhomenko said.  

That work, he said, should largely fall on the Democratic National Committee ahead of the upcoming midterm elections.  

But some say there are risks for Democrats spending too much energy focusing on how to answer these types of attacks.  

“I think Democrats and Biden need to stop allowing the Republican Party to set the agenda. All of these debates are happening on Republicans’ terms,” said Maneesh Arora, assistant professor of political science at Wellesley College. “Instead of having your messages driven by fear or reactions to the Republican Party, coalesce around a bold view of your own.”  

Democrats are facing steep odds ahead of the November midterm elections, with Biden’s popularity largely deflated. They are trying to market their accomplishments to voters while making the case that they are focused on addressing inflation and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  

And Biden is trying to revive his sweeping climate and social policy agenda while dealing with Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Some Democrats, however, believe the country is still paying the price for not pushing back hard enough on some culture war issues during the Obama administration that at the time similarly seemed too fringe to be taken seriously. 

Jay Carney, who served as press secretary for former President Obama for three years, said at a Bipartisan Policy Council event last week that he believes the most consequential decision during his time in the White House was not fighting back more against the racist conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States. 

“We did not take ‘birtherism’ seriously,” Carney said. “We did not believe that people were listening to those folks who were out there claiming that President Obama had not been born in the United States and that he wasn’t Christian until it was too late.” 

“We should have taken it seriously. We shouldn’t have joked about it,” Carney said, arguing it became a widely accepted view among many Republicans, contributing to partisan divisions years later. 

Former President Trump was one of the most prominent individuals leading the “birther” movement, and he frequently used cultural issues such as athletes protesting during the national anthem and Confederate monuments to rile up his base. 

Hopkins, the progressive strategist, argued that Democrats would ignore cultural issues at their own peril heading into the midterms and the 2024 elections given who Republicans may have on the ballot. 

“Look at who the most popular Republicans are statistically,” Hopkins said. “It’s Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, both of whom aren’t really running on policies, they’re running on culture war, personality-style campaigns.” 

Tags Biden Florida LGBTQ Ron DeSantis
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