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After a brutal election day, Democrats make a wise turn back to the center

Voters across the country last week resoundingly rejected the Democratic Party, which has moved increasingly — and detrimentally — to the left.

The 2021 elections were a clear repudiation of the Biden administration’s handling of major domestic issues, the national Democratic agenda and the growing influence of progressivism within the party. 

This should be a wake-up call for Democrats. Unless President Biden and his party respond to this loss by bringing their agenda back to the center, the decisive national swing toward the G.O.P. that bore itself out last week will end up being a bellwether for the 2022 midterm elections.

The most newsworthy upset victory was in the Virginia gubernatorial race, which saw a vote-swing of 12-points toward the G.O.P. from 2020, as Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe by 2-points in a state that Biden won by 10-points. 

The outcome of the New Jersey governor’s race arguably raises even louder alarm bells for Democrats. Though incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy narrowly defeated his underfunded Republican Jack Ciattarelli in the decidedly blue state, the vote-swing from 2020 was nearly 15-points to the G.O.P.

In New York, many down-ballot democratic candidates and democratic ballot initiatives also underperformed. Democratic candidates suffered upset losses in local races on Long Island and in Albany; and while Democrat Eric Adams decisively won the mayoral election in New York City, two progressive voting rights initiatives — which have been embraced by the national party — failed.

Republican candidates like Youngkin found success in avoiding Trumpian-style politics — without directly denouncing Trump or his voters — and running center-right campaigns centered on quality-of-life issues like the economy, public safety and education.

This strategy helped bring many suburban voters who had abandoned the party during the Trump era back into the G.O.P.’s fold, yet still motivated the Republican base to turn out. Youngkin was able to make inroads in the suburban counties around Washington D.C. and Richmond, as was Ciattarelli in areas like Bergen County.

This year’s election outcome in many ways parallels the 2009 elections during Barack Obama’s first term. In 2009, Republicans won the governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey and won upset victories in down-ballot races in New York and across the country. The following year in the 2010 midterms, Democrats lost a net of 63 House seats, and Republicans gained seven seats in the Senate. 

Of course, the party in power is almost certain to lose House seats in the midterm elections. That being said, the Democrats’ blowout defeat in 2010 — and before that, in the 1994 midterm elections under Bill Clinton — was due in large part to voters’ perceptions of a lagging economy and their rejection of the party in power passing massive spending and tax initiatives that year.

The parallels between 1994 and 2010 to 2021 are considerable. Our economic recovery is currently progressing slower than expected, inflation is soaring and the Democratic Party has been pushing for months to pass a massive tax and spending plan. All the while, the president’s central bipartisan achievement remained stalled in Congress. 

I was hired by Bill Clinton in 1994 after the Democrats’ shellacking in that year’s midterms. After Republicans took back control of the House, we worked with the G.O.P. towards a balanced budget and welfare reform, both of which had bipartisan support. In 1996, President Clinton won his second term by a landslide, and he left office under an economic surplus. This is the precise approach that the Democratic Party needs to urgently take in 2021 and 2022.

Positively, Democrats took an important step in the right direction on Friday, when the House passed the president’s bipartisan infrastructure bill. The legislation is a historic investment that is designed to bring our nation’s infrastructure into the 21st century.

Facing renewed pressure to pass their agenda, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) struck a deal with the progressive caucus — only six progressives ultimately voted “no” on the bipartisan bill — after months of Democratic infighting over their Build Back Better plan, which progressives wanted to pass in tandem with the bipartisan bill. The Build Back Better plan was ultimately put on hold at the urging of moderates until a nonpartisan analysis could tally its price tag.

To be sure, this is a win for the Democratic party and for the president. However, when Democrats do eventually turn to the Build Back Better Plan — their social safety net and climate change bill — Democratic leaders should move forward with each initiative in the plan separately by forcing a simple, separate yes or no vote on each policy within the larger package. This way, the onus is on the Republicans and the various fighting wings in the party to compromise issue-by-issue.

Ultimately, Biden won the 2020 election by appealing to a broad coalition of voters on a promise that he would bring both parties together and reestablish a degree of normalcy in our political discourse. 

Passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill was an important way to demonstrate to voters that he is keeping his promises — but there is more work to be done. And if national Democrats fail to moderate their position and reach out to swing voters going forward, the party could still face substantial midterm losses in 2022.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of, “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Build Back Better plan Democratic Party Glenn Youngkin Glenn Youngkin Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Joe Biden Joe Biden Michael Bloomberg Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi Phil Murphy Political parties in the United States Politics of the United States Republican Party Terry McAuliffe Terry McAuliffe

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