Democrats must not give in to self-fulfilling defeatism

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After a year that started with Democrats triumphantly recapturing the United States Senate in a historic campaign to successfully flip ruby-red Georgia, President Biden and congressional leaders were justifiably optimistic about their prospects in 2021. Eleven months later, bruised and divided, Democrats are left sifting through what might have been as they assess whether any of their major 2020 policy priorities will ever make the long journey to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Democrats’ woes read like a pharmaceutical ad: Is your party struggling with the sudden loss of Build Back Better? Is Republican congressional redistricting triggering your acid reflux? Are your poll numbers making you depressed? The media’s constant, disingenuous “Democrats in disarray” framing has some party activists and even lawmakers convinced there is no way for Biden and company to escape a brutal rout in the 2022 midterm elections. 

Beyond the doom-and-gloom, Democrats have a powerful set of issues to campaign on next year — if they don’t give in to the media’s self-fulfilling defeatism first. Here are three approaches Democrats can take to re-energize the base, unify the party and push back against the GOP spin machine in 2022.

Abortion is on the ballot

Democrats will need to ditch their fixation on yesterday’s stumbles if they want to counter the most acute threat to abortion rights in many Americans’ lifetimes. Next summer the Supreme Court will deliver its much-anticipated decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, with legal analysts on both sides of the aisle predicting Roe v. Wade will emerge seriously weakened by the court’s conservative majority, if the law survives at all. Democrats couldn’t ask for a better issue on which to frame their midterm campaign.

If the party can get over its misguided belief that talking about abortion is a losing issue, they’ll reap huge benefits. A supermajority of Americans (80 percent) support protecting abortion rights in some circumstances, including many suburban conservative women who have provided the GOP’s margin of victory in many swing districts. And the more Democrats talk about abortion, the less voters approve of their Republican opponents: A recent Hart Research Associates/ALG survey found that elections centered on abortion rights swung decisively toward Democrats. 

“Voters are with us on Roe and the right to an abortion, but the threat has always been more concept than reality,” Emily’s List Vice President for Communications Christina Reynolds told me. “This year we may see that threat become real, and voters are going to respond to that issue and remember who is with them and who has fought to overturn their rights.” 

A big surprise from Biden

A growing number of Americans feel the country is on the wrong track, and if history is any guide, it will take more than incremental actions from the White House to jolt voters into rethinking their perceptions of Joe Biden. Staking a few unapologetically progressive positions to define the 2022 conversation could be just the change of pace Democrats need, argues Sawyer Hackett, a senior adviser to former Sec. Julian Castro and his co-host on the “Our America” podcast.

“Joe Biden is losing the most ground with young voters, voters in big cities, and Black and Latino voters who don’t feel he’s making enough progress on issues affecting their lives,” Hackett warns. He believes cancelling student debt and bringing the party behind legalizing marijuana before the election are key to winning back those voters. 

There’s good reason to listen to Hackett’s advice: Americans overwhelmingly believe marijuana should be legal, and drug prosecutions remain a hugely unpopular driver of mass incarceration — an issue that brought together Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in an unlikely prison reform alliance last year. 

Voting rights will be decisive

“If [Democrats] do not pass voting rights, none of it matters,” said author and commentator Sophia A. Nelson. “The GOP is not playing games. They are fighting culture wars and winning. The Democrats better come up with a way to attack fascism because it is here and it is gaining support.” 

Nelson is right: A Monmouth University poll conducted earlier this year found that a supermajority of Republicans believed Donald Trump was the legitimate president of the United States despite the findings of over 60 federal courts. And that sense of Democratic illegitimacy has driven Republicans to enact the most extreme voter suppression legislation in recent history, a situation likely to doom red-state Democrats to sweeping losses unless the federal government acts to protect voting rights. 

If Democrats make 2022 about the fundamental right to vote – ideally by passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or any form of federal voting rights protections – they will be making good on one of Biden’s most significant 2020 campaign promises. And without the built-in advantage of suppressed voters and gerrymandered districts, Republicans would be forced to face their biggest weakness: fair congressional districts filled with voters who are actually able to cast their ballots.

Before Democrats vanish into a spiral of depression over the untimely demise of the Biden’s Build Back Better package, they should consider the broad array of winning issues their party represents. The party’s fumble of a historic domestic spending bill is embarrassing, to be sure, but it doesn’t need to be fatal. 

Despite how Democrats may feel, they represent popular issues with bipartisan appeal. 2022 will hinge on the party’s ability to shake off self-doubt and lean into Democrats’ core issues — but first they’ll need to agree on a unified message.

Max Burns is a Democratic strategist and founder of Third Degree Strategies, a progressive communications firm. Follow him on Twitter @themaxburns.

Tags 2022 elections Abortion-rights movements Cory Booker Democratic Party Dobbs v. Jackson Donald Trump Joe Biden John Lewis John Lewis Voting Rights Act Julian Castro Rand Paul

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