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Gift for the Democrats

Tuesday's loss of the governor’s race in Virginia (and maybe the House of Delegates too), and the unexpectedly close gubernatorial election in New Jersey, are a gift for the Democrats. A year before the national mid-terms, where control of Congress, governorships and the state legislatures will be at stake, they get dry ice dumped on their heads. Wake up! Get a grip!

Results in both states show that the suburban vote might still swing toward Republicans, especially without Trump on the ballot, and with control of schools as a key issue. Youngkin kept Trump confined to goosing his base in Southside and Southwest Virginia, while the candidate spoke to suburbanites about who would control the the schools. If Democrats thought, after Biden’s victory, that they could now count on the suburbs, they were delusional. The suburbs nationwide are now the biggest swing bloc. Remember that many of these voters turned around to vote GOP down-ballot after voting for Biden.

If Democrats are to hold or increase their majorities, they will do it in the suburbs. This pertains as much to the Senate as to the House.

Tip O’Neil once said that “All politics is local,” and while that still has some truth to it, these days all politics is also national: what’s happening (or not happening) in Washington has deep effects on state and even local elections. How many people do you know who will still vote “for the person, not the party” in local elections?

Democrats in Congress have allowed their factional differences and their tiny majorities in both chambers to immobilize them. They have little to show their constituents: in spite of having popular ideas, they couldn’t get to yes on enacting them. The reason for this failure is that both moderate and progressive wings seem to value getting the upper hand on each other more than they want to actually pass legislation.

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Neither wing, in either chamber, can get a majority without the other. And the Republicans—even so-called “moderates” like Susan Collins—have shown that they will provide no votes, even when Democratic moderates like Senator Joe Manchin explicitly tailor legislation to appeal to them. So Democrats are on their own.

They need, quickly, to pass the bipartisan Infrastructure bill that progressives in the House have held up for leverage on the moderates like Manchin, in crafting the more sweeping “Build Back Better” bill that includes both enhanced social programs and significant climate change initiatives. Yesterday’s results put Manchin and the moderates in the driver’s seat. Democrats need, quickly, to find where Manchin’s final yes-point is, and pass the bill. Policies like paid family leave that have been dropped from this bill can be sought later in other legislation. Democrats have a year to show that they can legislate, even with the tiniest of majorities. The opportunities, from social policy to immigration, to climate change, are legion.

In the final analysis, as Biden himself pointed out, getting these two bills passed is the key to Democrats retaining their majorities, and to the success of his presidency itself. If Biden is seen as a failure, the Congressional Democrats won’t be able to hold their majorities.

The national electorate is divided roughly into thirds, whether you look at party affiliation or ideology. Neither party can capture a majority, even in the constitutionally gerrymandered Senate, with only its partisans. Progressive Democrats already control most of the districts where progressives can win. Conservative Republicans are in a parallel situation. Both parties, to get a majority, need to appeal to ideological moderates and partisan independents, voters who tend to be found in the suburbs nationwide. Each party needs to hold and mobilize its base and then appeal successfully to these swing voters.

impeachment unavoidable

Trump’s approach has actually been counterproductive in this respect, because he consistently appeals only to his base while alienating suburban moderates. But Youngkin in Virginia and Ciattarelli in New Jersey showed they could win by marginalizing (in Virginia) or ignoring (in New Jersey) the Trump approach, and making serious inroads in the suburbs.

If Democrats are to hold or increase their majorities, they will do it in the suburbs. This pertains as much to the Senate as to the House. And for this, facile, polarizing slogans, like “defund the police,” are unhelpful. Get a grip!

John Peeler