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2020 Flop

Joe Biden’s decisive defeat of Donald Trump, and the Democrats’ capture of two Senate seats in the Georgia runoffs in January were certainly reasons to celebrate. But underneath that shiny surface was a nationwide failure of down-ballot Democrats to match Biden’s margins. The result was leaving dozens of states under exclusive Republican control as we approach reapportionment, a perilously slim House margin, and an evenly divided Senate under Democratic control only because of Vice President Harris’ tie-breaking vote.

In short, below the presidential level, 2020 was an undebatable debacle for the Democrats.

Defying predictable Republican opposition, a unified Democratic caucus managed to push through the American Rescue Act, via reconciliation, with Harris’ tie-breaker. But other legislative achievements have been elusive, in the absence of consensus on either the further use of reconciliation (to obviate the filibuster), or on eliminating the filibuster, which empowers the minority by requiring sixty votes to stop debate.

The blunt reality, then, is that even though the Democrats technically have the majority, it’s a majority that won’t work for any of the major initiatives they have in mind.

Two Democratic senators in particular, Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) have vocally opposed both using reconciliation and eliminating the filibuster. Without them, neither move is possible. Manchin has just made it clear that he won’t change his mind. He demands bipartisanship, notwithstanding the evidence that too few of his Republican colleagues have the least interest in it.

The blunt reality, then, is that even though the Democrats technically have the majority, it’s a majority that won’t work for any of the major initiatives they have in mind.

They can of course make the Republicans actually hold the floor, actually filibuster each major proposal. They can make the Republicans vote against popular proposals, votes that can then be held against them in the coming elections. And they should surely do those things to help make the case for a bigger Democratic majority in 2022.

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But there will be bills that need to be passed, like infrastructure, and that will mean taking what the Republicans offer, while holding more ambitious projects for a more propitious future.

It really isn’t that complicated. Both parties are dominated by activists on the Right and Left, respectively. Each can elect a minority of members from districts that fit the ideological and policy preferences of those activists. The fight for the majority is fought in districts where centrist or moderate voters hold the balance of power. These districts are mostly in the suburbs. So the party that has a message and candidates to appeal to those suburban moderates will win the majority.

The Democrats actually hold the advantage here. Biden’s announced proposals are mostly quite popular, while Republicans have been consumed by Trump’s unpopular attempts to overthrow the election results. To the extent that Republicans even talk about policy, their positions are often unpopular, like opposing higher taxes on the rich. Even on “culture war” issues like abortion, Republicans are locked into positions with minority support.

To compete successfully for the suburbs, Democrats just need to stay with their program, show up the Republicans’ intransigence, and avoid getting bitten by sound bites like “Defund the Police,” that might be popular in a few liberal districts, but not across the country. Even the voters of color who are core Democratic constituencies don’t want to defund the police, they just want better policing. 

That should be enough to hold and expand the House majority. To win a bigger Senate majority requires more. Many “majority minority” districts will automatically elect Democrats to the House, whatever their voter turnout might be. But to win Senate seats, Democrats need to do much better in appealing to and mobilizing minority voters. That means showing a real understanding of the problems faced by those voters, and proposing realistic solutions on issues like policing and housing.

impeachment unavoidable

And it means not treating minority communities as monolithic. National origins, class and race all divide Latino Americans, Asian Americans and African Americans. Democratic strategists need to have a firm grip on these realities.

Joe Manchin was just the bearer of bad news that was already there. To shape a better future, Democrats must get real now.

John Peeler