If we didn’t know it before, Democrats certainly realized Tuesday night that there’s a red-siren political problem that needs to be addressed quickly.
To solve any problem, first you need to know what you’re trying to solve for. There are many takeaways from Tuesday’s election results. For me, the overriding predicament is that Democrats have a serious enthusiasm deficiency.
Among the many metrics that voters delivered us, just mull over these most basic ones: In November 2020, Joe Biden won Virginia by getting 2.41 million votes. One year later, Terry McAuliffe receives 1.61 million votes—a drop-off of 33 percent. Biden also won New Jersey by getting 2.61 million votes. One year later, Phil Murphy is closing in on 1.2 million votes—a drop-off of 54 percent.
To be clear, in any nonpresidential election cycle, there’s likely to be lower voter participation. And the battle is over how much each side can inspire turnout. On the right, there’s been less dissipation of voter enthusiasm. Glenn Youngkin got an astounding 86 percent of Donald Trump’s 1.96 million vote total in Virginia, while Jack Ciattarelli maintained 64 percent of Trump’s 2020 vote haul in Jersey.
Of course, there certainly may have been some small percentage of voters switching between the parties, but in these polarized times, I think it’s fair to say that on Tuesday, Trump-led Republicans just turned out more than Biden-led Democrats. And with Trump off the ballot and out of the White House, the motivation for some Democrats to turn out clearly faded.
On the right, the passion to defeat and name-call the president is real; there is excitement over a defiance of school mask mandates (and various Covid-19 protocols) and an ever-present motivation to troll Democratic values of diversity and inclusion in all spaces.
And thus the fundamental question: What are we doing to motivate Democratic voters to turn out? What gets Democrats fired up?
As the popular and much-needed Build Back Better agenda has been stymied for months and months in an interminable legislative quagmire, it’s clear that Democratic passion, along with Biden favorability, has eroded.
Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, have long played the nihilistic game of obstruction when a Democrat has been in the White House, and so the burden has rested with Democrats to show unity and action. And as we all know too well, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have seized an opportunity to throttle the pace and ambition of Biden’s agenda. With every high-profile media scrum, celebratory thumbs-down, or unilateral demand for unstrategic pause, increasing percentages of Democrats have been watching and checking out with dissatisfaction.
Fundamentally, to solve the problem of Democratic voter enthusiasm, we need to project and demonstrate Democratic muscularity. The president’s patience is being taken advantage of by Sinema, Manchin, and others. It’s time for the reserved and restrained Biden team to go on offense. It’s time for action, and it’s time to wield power.
Among the moves that would be wise for the president and his team to consider: deadlines and red lines. Biden has thus avoided setting them. He should announce a vote for Build Back Better in the House and Senate ASAP and keep to it. If members want to vote it down, go right ahead. But we need to call the question and let the public know who stands where.
Biden should make clear that there are certain popular elements that he’s going to demand be in the bill. Thus far, he has allowed the legislative whims of various closed-door conversations to cut, nip, shave, and whittle down the transformational nature of the plans he initially pursued. Add back in paid leave and Medicare expansion, invite the friction with those who moan about it, and let them vote and explain their positions. And if need be, then let’s vote again.
At the same time, the Biden team should ready a strong executive order agenda on a range of issues from student debt, prescription drugs, weed, labor, corporate accountability, and climate. If Congress can’t act, he will and he should.
The president would also do well to get out on the road and animate his values and his fights. For example, go stand with striking John Deere, Kellogg’s, Warrior Met, or hospital workers. Express solidarity with Starbucks or Dollar General or Amazon employees seeking to form unions. Change the norms of what people expect from a president and provide a high-profile, historic example of Biden on a picket line. Be a disruptor for good.
Take on the negative experiences of inflation by calling out corporations that are unnecessarily jacking up prices on consumers, stiffing their own workers, and then reporting record profits while distributing dividends to investors. Use the power of the bully pulpit to demand some of these companies raking it in do right by the workers who have made them those profits.
And while we’re at it, take on a pending corporate merger and beat it back. Stand with small-business entrepreneurs who just want to be able to compete against corporate goliaths. Hold welcome-back events for the returning veterans who you have brought home from war. Then get out and stump with Democratic candidates in 2022 who applaud you for taking these actions.
The takeaway from Tuesday is that Democratic voters’ confidence is waning that Democratic power will be wielded in their favor. We still have time to show them that their votes matter.