The biggest lesson Democrats should take from the midterms

A sign encouraging voting sits along along a roadway on November 6, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
A sign encouraging voting sits along along a roadway on November 6, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

This Never-MAGA Republican voted straight Democratic last week except for one down-ballot race. I’m heartened that pundits forecasting a red wave got a sanity tsunami instead. Democrats clinched the Senate; while it seems likely they'll lose the House, their competitive showing is likely to hand the Republicans an “unworkable majority.”

The GOP’s authoritarianism and anti-abortion stance haunted voters in the polling booth. The party’s base nominated candidates who were too extremist, too scary to win, at the behest of a disgraced ex-president (who just announced his third run for the White House, whilst sulking at Mar-a-lago, pushing back against reports that he blames his wife and others for selling him on the likes of Dr. Oz.)

And yet …

The GOP clown car successfully disgorged hundreds of election fabulists into the halls of power. Meanwhile, other hard data from the returns exposed chasms between the worldviews of Democratic progressives and the rest of the world. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her squad underperforms Joe Biden’s 2020 showing in their districts, we ought to pay attention.

Take immigration. Progressives empathize, as do I, with undocumented immigrants, who aren’t to blame for the interminable time required for legal entry into the U.S. But many immigrants who waited in line understandably resent line-jumpers. Hence Monica de la Cruz, whose family immigrated legally from Mexico and who supports Donald Trump’s wall. She became the first Republican to win an 80% Latino/Hispanic Texas district in its century-plus existence.

Yes, GOP Rep. Mayra Flores lost her Texas seat in a Latino/Hispanic district. But her incumbency after a June special election, while short-lived, demonstrates some competitiveness in what is, after all, just a 10-year old district. And de la Cruz's victory is of a piece with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who won re-election in a landslide, including 57% of the Hispanic vote; he was the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win heavily-blue Miami-Dade County in 20 years.

Democrats are benefitting from a perception among voters that Republicans are extreme, but they cannot fully reap the gains of this view, as voters think Democrats are extreme as well.

The Third Way, Overcoming the Democratic Party Brand

There’s a reason the Biden administration forced out its border czar amid record illegal crossings. And why, on another front, inflation, accurately predicted to be voters’ top-of-mind concern, helped persuade the president to seek a business executive as advisor, “even if that means inflaming the party’s progressive base.”

It is cause for rejoicing that Biden did not topple under the gales of history, posting the best midterm results for a president in two decades. But when running against the party of QAnon, racists, insurrectionists and Jewish space lasers, even some Democratic winners found the returns too close for complacency. A pre-election poll by a Democratic think tank suggested that "Democrats are benefitting from a perception among voters that Republicans are extreme, but they cannot fully reap the gains of this view, as voters think Democrats are extreme as well.”

That perception boiled down to three concerns that that poll and others identify as Republican strengths with the electorate. Each demands fresh thinking from Democrats.

InflationThe Federal Reserve is the front-line inflation fighter. But if Economics 101 has any validity, the president and Congress can lend a hand by cutting deficits.

Simplifying the tax code by deep-sixing all but a few politically sacrosanct breaks has been a conservative cause; progressives who won’t make it theirs commit political and policy malpractice. It would raise gobs of money that, combined with prudent budget cuts, could make a down payment on the deficit, while honoring government’s obligations to the needy. (It would also lasso tax-dodging plutocrats.)

CrimeRacism disfigures too much policing. But Democrats capable of nuance have articulated ways to address that and blunt Republican soft-on-crime charges. (Spoiler alert: it doesn't involve cries of defund the police, which is a losing message.) It starts with better police training and hiring diversity, and common-sense gun safety laws: Gun nuts who’d arm everyone disregard evidence that our firearms epidemic gives octane to crime.

Immigration. “No country in the world has a deliberately open border policy.” Even progressive Canada privileges newcomers’ economic potential in weighing who is admitted. The late Sen. John McCain, who supported a humane path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, concluded from contentious voter objections that such a path must run through border security measures in order to pass.

None of the foregoing cheers activists and academic experts on immigration. Demonizing immigrants as crime-prone is fake news, as they correctly note when arguing for fewer immigration restrictions. But the midterms clarify the needed political deal that has long been clear to anyone paying attention: securing the border in exchange for adequate resources to untangle the legal-entry logjam, and that path to citizenship.

Purists who’d make the perfect (their idea of it, anyway) the enemy of the good should remember another blunder too many analysts make. They blame Trump for Republicans’ heartache last week, but that’s dangerous reductionism: Fearful, resentful millions stampede the way that the nutjob directs them.

Democrats mustn’t let progressive overreach wave a red cape before that MAGA bull.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.



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