Democrats debate how hard to hit GOP

President Biden
Associated Press/Susan Walsh

Democrats are debating how aggressive President Biden should be when taking on Republicans, with some saying he needs to be balanced in his attacks and others wanting him to go full-throttle. 

The pressure to draw deeper contrasts between his party and the opposition comes as a delicate legislative dance with Republicans on the bipartisan infrastructure bill is now in the background and the White House faces new challenges with the omicron variant of the coronavirus. 

The new variant is threatening the nation’s economy, and Biden’s standing, and has given fresh points for Republicans to seize upon ahead of the midterm elections next year.

“He can’t give them an inch on any of this because they will turn it around and use it to their advantage,” said one top Democratic strategist. 

The strategist pointed to comments by Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas), who said this week that the omicron variant is the latest plot by Democrats to “CHEAT during an election,” as he wrote on Twitter. “But we’re not going to let them!”

The Democratic operative said the White House needs a clear messaging strategy along with a more aggressive stance in dealing with Republicans “who will flat out lie and gaslight until they’re controlling the narrative.”

On Wednesday, while speaking about the supply chain during the holiday season, Biden amped up his rhetoric and took a tougher line with the GOP. He touted economic data showing strong gains and said it didn’t happen “because of luck.” 

“None of this was inevitable,” Biden said in remarks at the White House. “It was because of the American Rescue Plan, which virtually every Democrat in Congress voted for and every Republican voted against.”

At the same time, some Democrats explained that it hasn’t been easy for Biden to take a harsher line with Republicans as he contends with divisions in his own party. 

“Biden’s done all he can to get his big agenda items passed, but he’s had to wrestle with two things Obama didn’t: uniting factions within his own party and dealing with the uncertainty of the pandemic and all the politics embedded in it,” said Basil Smikle, the director of the Public Policy program at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute.

Still, Smikle added that Biden “should always show signs of strength, so if it means pushing back hard on Republicans, he couldn’t be accused of not using his power.”

The pandemic has continued to loom over the Biden presidency, creating headaches for the whole administration, which vowed a dramatically difficult approach from how former President Trump addressed the crisis.

While many credit Biden’s approach to vaccines, masks and testing as proactive, it has not been enough to get several strains of the virus under full control. The omicron variant has created national anxiety and given the GOP more fodder to attack top White House officials, including Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser and a favorite target on the right, for perceived inadequacies.

On Wednesday, the first case of omicron was identified in California.

Republicans have sought to highlight Biden’s weaknesses at every chance they get, causing voters — including independents — to grow skeptical of the president and his policies. 

But Democrats say the contrasts should be clear and it’s on Biden to make the case. 

“If voters aren’t seeing a contrast between the hard work his administration is doing to contain COVID and rebuild the economy and the attempts by Republicans to keep COVID alive and shut down the economy, clearly they’re doing it wrong,” said Christy Setzer, president of New Heights Communications.

“I’m not sure if the answer is ‘being aggressive’ so much as continuously finding ways to draw that contrast,” she said.

Up until now, much of the oxygen from Biden has been devoted to mending the divisions within the Democratic Party. But after the passage of his Build Back Better legislation, Democrats say he can turn his attention to the other side. 

“The president and his team can shift their messaging to not only sell their agenda but also create a better, more clear contrast with Republicans,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “Any politician does better when they have a clear adversary. Right now, the president doesn’t have one.”

Beyond the severe and immediate threat of COVID-19, Democrats have been feeling pressure from their party’s left flank to be more biting in their rhetoric against Republicans when addressing systems of inequality — from the economy and racial injustice to reproductive freedom. 

Progressives say that moderates, including those within the administration, need to explicitly tell voters that members of the GOP have crafted policies over decades that are now adversely impacting their daily lives, or have the potential to if they regain control of Washington. 

“It’s not enough just to say Republicans are worse,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, executive director of the grassroots group NextGen America. “People need to know who’s responsible for their pain.”

Abortion politics took center stage on Wednesday as the Supreme Court considered a strict Mississippi law. Democrats see the issue as one where they can highlight their differences with Republicans in ways they think will attract voters and fire up their own base.

They also want to point out Trump’s nominations of conservative judges during his term in office, an area of intense agony for Democrats. In the midterms, they want to use those confirmation battles to get their people out to vote.

“Progressives win when they offer a vision for the future and what we can become and the power that we have to do that,” Ramirez said. “And Republicans win when they paint a picture of the past. It’s much harder to paint a picture of the future than the past.”

Tags Abortion Anthony Fauci Donald Trump Infrastructure Joe Biden Supreme Court voting rights

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