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Quick Election Reax
All my priors have been confirmed, just like everybody else
Everyone else has already weighed in on last night’s results. So let me be the last to offer mine.
I think the main reasons the GOP did so much better than expected, winning in Virginia and making New Jersey still too close to call, are (1) the sputtering economy, with inflation higher than usual, energy prices especially high, and supply bottlenecks of various kinds gumming up the works, and (2) the continuation of both the pandemic and of pandemic-related restrictions, including mask mandates in schools and vaccine mandates for employment. Elections are nearly always first and foremost referenda on the incumbent, and that referendum is nearly always first and foremost about basic material conditions. That doesn’t mean that candidate quality or messaging are irrelevant. But they are decidedly secondary factors in an election relative to the fundamentals. (They become far more important when it comes to actually governing or legislating.)
So I am skeptical that Youngkin has some kind of special sauce that enabled him to win an upset victory in a state that has been trending blue, or that Terry McAuliffe—a man whose first term as governor began with a historic upset of his own—was a uniquely inept candidate. I think it helped, at the margins, that Youngkin presented as a suburban dad rather than a raging lunatic—and I think it hurt, at the margins, that McAuliffe made a gaffe late in the campaign suggesting parents had no legitimate interest in what their kids were being taught—but only at the margins.
As for “critical race theory,” I find it much easier to see it as a rallying cry for the Republican base than as a banner for winning over swing voters. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure it’s an issue that cuts the GOP’s way. But if it mattered, and it probably did, it’s mostly because as long as people were talking about that, they weren’t talking about things that were far more important to voters. And since elections are referenda on the incumbent party, if the discussion is about something people don’t want to hear about, you’re failing to make your case for reelection. Or more specifically—and maybe this is the best way to understand the issue—it read to voters as evidence that Democrats don’t really care about education anymore. If McAuliffe could have responded to Youngkin talking about Toni Morrison by talking up new science labs, higher reading scores, a rising graduation rate, etc.—or, for that matter, about fewer in-school violent incidents, more nutritious school meals, and other crucial quality-of-life issues related to education—he would have made Youngkin look like a small-minded crank. But of course, during Covid the schools were closed—for far longer than they needed to be. So there, once again, we’re back to material conditions: services were not provided, and the people noticed, and are not pleased.
That’s one of many reasons I’m skeptical of messaging as a solution to these kinds of problems. You can’t message your way out of a bad economy—the best you can do is demonstrate that you are trying to make it better, and that what the other guys want to do will undo what you are doing. That’s what Obama did in 2012. People were deeply disappointed with the halting recovery, and he might well have lost his reelection bid because of it. But he could point to the auto bailout and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the fact that the financial system had been saved—and point out that the GOP and his opponent opposed all those things, that they wanted to do less for homeowners, less for domestic industry. The GOP isn’t making it quite that easy this time around. They’re grabbing pieces of the salient issues, and running on them.
What, then, are Democrats supposed to do if they want to recover? The most important thing they can actually do is focus on those material conditions and communicate that they are focused on them. It’s fair to say that, in current circumstances, that’s not always an easy task. The main mechanism for fighting inflation is reducing monetary stimulus by raising interest rates, but that puts a damper on the economy and reduces the scope for further spending initiatives. The main mechanism for fighting the pandemic is getting more people vaccinated, but vaccine mandates are among the anti-Covid measures that are provoking a backlash. As I argued last month, the Republicans really do have the wind at their backs, for reasons beyond the structural advantages they hold in our electoral system, and that just makes the Democrats’ job harder.
But I don’t think that means the job is impossible. If money isn’t free anymore, there’s still a lot of scope for Democrats to talk about spending smarter and more effectively, and to fold a message about regulatory relief and other supply-side measures in with a larger story about how government action can improve the economy as well as the services it provides to people. If the pandemic isn’t going away, there’s still a lot of scope for Democrats to talk about off-ramps for various kinds of restrictions even as they push to spread vaccination further, so the overall story isn’t about waiting patiently but about getting back to life. They have to actually walk the walk—actually pass spending plans that are smarter, actually enact supply-side solutions, actually pare back Covid restrictions. But if they walk it they can also talk about where they are going and how they are getting there.
Or, you know, they can lose, but go down fighting for what matters most to them. That’s obviously not the desired outcome, but sometimes it’s a likely outcome and it’s important to recognize that. The “existential threat” narrative is great for fundraising, and I am not going to discount it entirely by any means, not when “stop the steal” remains a Republican rallying cry and Donald Trump remains a potential future candidate. But as, again, I’ve argued before, the populist right isn’t going away. That means it’s sometimes going to win elections, fair and square. And that means that part of the challenge for the Democrats is figuring out how to accept that when it happens, learn from it, and come back to fight another day.