The Dangers of the Democratic Doom Loop
Democratic pessimism is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy by demobilizing our voters and volunteers.
Despite controlling the House, Senate, and White House for the first time in a dozen years and being on the cusp of passing historic legislation, Democrats are in a sour mood. I get it. The pandemic rages on, the Republicans are getting worse, and Trump lurks in the background. A few months ago, we thought we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, but it was just another oncoming train as the nation appears to careen from crisis to crisis. Like everyone else, I am so sick of talking, tweeting, and thinking about Joe Fricking Manchin. Never before in American history has someone so uninteresting held the nation’s attention for so long.
When Pod Save America sent out a call for questions for our annual Thanksgiving Mail Bag Episode, the hottest topic was some version of “are we doomed?” The impulse to expect the worst is certainly understandable after a brutal 2021, but it is also the fastest way to guarantee an even worse 2022. To have any chance to hold or expand our majorities in 2022, we must resist the Democratic doom loop.
Doom and Demobilization
Democrats are a superstitious lot. Even more so after prematurely popping our champagne in 2016. Even when all votes are cast and counted, we are nervous to declare victory. At one point in 2018, Nancy Pelosi guaranteed that Democrats would win back the House and Democrats freaked out. People begged her online to delete the tweet before the karmic gods discovered it and punished her party for hubris.
Republicans take a decidedly different approach. They promise victory even when there is no available evidence to suggest the probability of that outcome. And when their party has a political tailwind, the Republicans are obnoxiously giddy with their predictions. The day after Glen Youngkin beat Terry McAuliffe in previously reliably blue Virginia, Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy took the opportunity to rub the political implications in Democrats’ faces. He imagined Democratic seat losses:
When she [Pelosi] was Speaker last time, losing 63 set a record, but it could be more competitive this time.
Other Republicans and the MAGA media are hammering home the idea that a historically large Republican victory is inevitable. Democrats did not make similar declarations after their much larger victory in Virginia in 2017 or huge upset wins in Alabama and Kentucky in the Trump years. In some ways, the difference between the parties is endemic to the culture of the parties. Angry bravado has long been a part of the Republican Party. This Republican character flaw is how they ended up nominating George W. Bush, a dim, swaggering faux-cowboy, and Donald Trump, a bloviating, bigoted bully. Democrats look for different attributes in our standard-bearers. But there is a strategic element to the GOP messaging.
If Democrats believe they are doomed, they will be doomed. Republicans are trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are three specific tactics Republicans will use to fulfill this prophecy:
Encouraging Dems to Retire: Let’s be honest being in the minority sucks — particularly in the House where there is almost no opportunity for the party out of power to have a substantive impact. For members contemplating retirement, the prospect of returning to the minority is enough to convince them to forgo the exhausting endeavor of raising money and stumping for reelection in a tough political environment. Thus far, 19 House Democrats have announced plans to retire after 2022 with several more sitting on the fence. While some of these folks are in safe seats, many are in battleground districts. Every open seat creates another opportunity for the Republicans. In general, it’s easier to defeat an unknown candidate than an established incumbent with a high name ID and a long-term relationship with the voters. Therefore, the Republicans want to push as many Democrats as possible off the fence and into retirement.
C.R.E.A.M: If Republican majority leadership appears likely, lobbyists and corporate PACs will start writing checks to Republicans in order to garner favor. The greater the likelihood, the bigger the checks. This is, of course, a searing indictment of our corrupt campaign finance system, but it is the reality.
Demobilization: Democratic success in 2022 — or any other year — depends on mobilizing the tens of millions of Americans who became engaged in the political process after Trump’s 2016 victory. If even a few sit out this election, we are doomed. The best way to get people to disengage is to convince them that their engagement is pointless. Why donate money, knock on doors, text back, or even vote if the outcome is predetermined? This is why McCarthy et al declare victory early, brazenly push voter suppression, and support gerrymandering. Convincing people that their voice doesn’t matter is a classic authoritarian tactic.
Based on the high number of House retirements, the polls, and the results in Virginia, it’s clear that Democrats are preemptively preparing for defeat. And that’s a very real problem.
Reasons For Optimism/The Bull Case
I want to be very clear. Democrats have a tough road ahead of them. The first midterm for a new president is historically brutal and that is particularly true in a redistricting year where the other party is drawing the majority of the districts. I am not telling you that everything will be fine. And I am not making a prediction. But, as a party — and a movement — we need to do a better job of “hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.” With that in mind, here are some reasons for optimism:
Things Will Get Better Eventually: In elections, nothing matters more than the reality on the ground. The Virginia election could not have come at a worse time. Delta was still lingering, food and fuel costs were up, the supply chain and labor shortage issues were front of mind, schools opened while most kids were still unvaccinated. Just because things are tough now doesn’t mean they will still be that way when people cast their votes next year. Despite all of the news about the Omicron variant, it’s very possible the pandemic is better under control. More people are vaccinated, prices came down and the economy is roaring into next year. We can rest easy knowing there may be a sense of collective relief and jubilation that will benefit the president and the party that fixed the economy and controlled the pandemic.
Senate Map: The House map is going to be difficult. But while the Senate structure favors Republicans, the 2022 map is still decent for Democrats. We could not only maintain but expand our majority without flipping a single Trump state. In fact, all we need to do is turnout people who voted for Joe Biden last year. While that’s not easy, it is very doable.
Youngkin’s the Exception, Not the Rule: Given the rogue gallery of Republican Senate candidates and the general Republican preference for MAGA-types with very loose grasps on reality, Glenn Youngkin is likely to be the exception not the rule in the Republican field. Whether it’s Herschel Walker in Georgia, Tedd Budd in North Carolina, or Josh Mandel in Ohio, the Republicans seem likely to nominate a bunch of candidates unable or unwilling to replicate Youngkin’s deft tightrope act. In 2010, Democrats held the Senate despite losing 63 seats in the House. This was a result of Republicans nominating awful candidates like Sharon Angle in Nevada. In 2012, we held onto Senate seats in Indiana and Missouri — two states Obama lost handily — for similar reasons.
The Return of Trump: One misguided takeaway from the Virginia election is that running against Trump is a strategy doomed to fail. Running against Trump in the overly simplistic hackish way of the McAuliffe campaign should not be replicated, but it’s naive to think that Trump will not be a factor in the 2022 election. Trump never visited Virginia. He isn’t on Twitter. For all but the most politically engaged, the former president is nothing more than an afterthought. But that is unlikely to be the case in 2022 when he is actively campaigning up and down the ballot and the media is saturated with stories about his potential 2024 run. While Democrats still need a compelling message that incorporates Trump and Trumpism, his return to the political scene should light a fire in our voters and remind some Independents and other persuadable voters why they turned against the Republicans.
While the odds may be long, the outcome is not predetermined. Every single one of us has agency in this situation, which is why you should go to Vote Save America and sign up to help, and if you can, donate to the No Off Years Fund to support organizers in key states.
A lot can and will change between now and next year. Opportunities to upend history will present themselves. The only question is whether we will crawl out from underneath our desks to take advantage of them.