Letter from Washington: Do Democrats really want to learn from 2020?
A supposedly honest election post-mortem is a symptom of the party’s problems
The idea that Democrats would need to conduct a post-mortem of the 2020 election might strike a casual observer of US politics as odd. After all, the party secured unified government last November: Joe Biden is in the White House; control of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Yet, in many ways, last November was a disappointment. Polls that suggested an unpopular president and a Republican party damaged by the pandemic led to high expectations. But Democrats ended up losing 13 House seats, while the Presidential race was closer than many had expected. Add to that the inroads the Trump-led Republicans made into the Hispanic vote, along with a slight drop in the Democratic vote share among black Americans, and the result is a party concerned that things are not panning out quite as expected. In the weeks after election day, the leaders of the party’s various factions spent as much time arguing over who was to blame for House losses as they did celebrating Biden’s victory.
An attempt at answering the question of what went wrong came earlier this month, when a trio of Democratic groups — Third Way, The Collective PAC and Latino Victory — published what the New York Times called “the most thorough act of self-criticism carried out by Democrats or Republicans since the last campaign”.
Among the review’s headline findings: Latino and Black voters were too frequently treated as “Get Out The Vote targets” rather than “audiences for persuasion”; down-ballot candidates failed to match Joe Biden’s popularity among non-white voters; Democrats allowed themselves to become the party of lockdowns, and failed to set out a compelling economic vision; the party “leaned too heavily on anti-Trump rhetoric”; and Republicans successfully branded Democrats as radicals with a message that was heavy on accusations of socialism and defunding the police.
By now, the electoral toxicity of “defund the police” is obvious. The latest evidence came from New York, where Eric Adams, a black ex-Republican former cop, looks set to clinch the Democratic Party’s Mayoral nomination thanks to an old school, blue collar, tough on crime campaign.
And yet, the report by Third Way et al is strikingly tentative when it comes to criticising “Defund”. The post-mortem’s authors, Democratic strategists Marlon Marshall and Lynda Tran, tip toe around the issue, characterising a policy endorsed and enacted by dozens of elected Democratic officials in an election year as, first and foremost, a Republican smear.
A “major Democratic funder” is approvingly quoted as saying “the primary problem with Defund was not Defund”. Ben Young, a Democratic campaigner, tells the authors, “If it wasn’t ‘Defund the Police’, Republicans would have found another racist dog whistle.”
The “Defund the Police” conversation was damaging because, according to Marshall and Tran, “we were stuck on the defensive instead of telling a proactive story about necessary systemic changes to policing that would stem the violence and still prioritize and provide public safety. There’s a way for a “Defund the Police” advocate and someone who isn’t convinced we should divert police funding to agree to disagree but to lift up the value of what everyone needs.” Elsewhere, the authors criticise Democrats’ “unwillingness — or inability — to address race head on.”
If this is what a no holds barred critique of the Democrats in 2020 looks like, then the party’s problems are even deeper than I initially thought. If a party can only see the debate around defunding the police in terms of “telling a proactive story” and fighting back against Republican “dog whistles”, rather than as a question of addressing entirely reasonable concerns about rising crime and shrinking police forces, then it is nowhere near learning the lessons of the last 12 months.
It is so obvious that what the veteran Clinton strategist James Carville calls “faculty lounge bullshit” is electoral kryptonite for Democrats. And so even if it hints at the right answers, the post-mortem’s tentativeness is telling, and ultimately makes it a symptom of the problem it is describing. Strip back the lifeless, managerial language of the political operative and you are left with evidence of a party that agrees on very little beyond the evils of Trump. A failure to set out a positive vision of what the Democratic Party offers voters isn’t just a communications mistake. It’s a consequence of real, large and potentially unbridgeable differences over what that vision should be.
As a candidate, Biden won the Democratic nomination in part because of an appreciation of the conservatism of important parts of the Democratic base, hewing to the centre whilst others veered to the left. But the Biden administration appears to oscillate between the electorally sensible and faculty lounge bullshit.
The day after Eric Adams’s strong showing in the New York primary, Biden made $350 billion of federal funding available to tackle rising crime rates, including by hiring more cops: the exact opposite of Defund the Police. And yet this was also the week in which he deployed “Latinx” — a bit of woke gobbledygook meaningless to most Latinos — and made a clumsy argument about low vaccination rates among Hispanics being due to a fear of deportation. On Kamala Harris’s recent reluctant trip to the US-Mexican border, Congresswoman Veronica Escobar welcomed the Vice-President to “the new Ellis Island”. Elsewhere, the Biden administration has updated health guidance, replacing the word “mother” with “birthing person”. Again, faculty lounge bullshit.
The lessons of 2020 are obvious. The only question is whether Democrats choose to understand them.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe