A friend and I were at a bar when someone opined that France didn’t resist the German invasion in 1940. “It’s true, France lost fast,” my friend replied. “But they fought hard. They lost 90,000 troops in six weeks. It was a bloodbath. We lost 58,000 over a decade in Vietnam but we’re still whining about it.”
Every conflict ends with a winner and a loser. There is no shame in losing—only in not trying.
Democrats need to learn this lesson. Voters want their elected representatives to fight for them.
This administration is not without accomplishments: last year’s coronavirus stimulus package saved millions of Americans from bankruptcy and prevented a recession; though poorly executed, President Biden deserves praise for the withdrawal from Afghanistan; and, inflation aside, workers are benefitting from rising wages and record-low unemployment. The pandemic seems to be in our rearview mirror. Now, The New York Times reports, party bosses are trying to decide on a unified message for the midterms: “Should they pursue ambitious policies that show Democrats are fighters, or is it enough to hope for more modest victories while emphasizing all that the party has passed already?”
Democrats have been bragging about their accomplishments for months. But “Democrats deliver”—their flaccid midterm slogan—hasn’t delivered.
The news that the United States Supreme Court plans to overturn Roe v. Wade may well sweep aside the other issues that have been percolating in voters’ minds over the last few months. But conservatives are just as energized as liberals when it comes to abortion. And many progressives are asking themselves: why didn’t Democrats pass a federal abortion rights law when Obama had a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate? At other times, why didn’t they go on the record with a vote? Abortion repeal probably helps Democrats, but not as much as they think and not enough to keep control of Congress.
Before the Supreme Court leak, Joe Biden’s own pollster was repeatedly warning Democrats that disaster loomed in November. The president’s approval ratings stubbornly refuse to budge above a dismal 40%, hobbled by incredibly shrinking support among voters under age 30. Vegas bookies give the GOP three-to-one odds of recapturing the Senate and a 90% chance of taking back the House. “We haven’t sold the American people what we’ve actually done,” Biden moaned recently.
Messaging isn’t the only problem. “Allies and some voters note that polling is partially driven by anger over extraordinary events, including the war’s impact on gas prices, that the White House could not fully control,” the Times says. Of course, it was Biden’s decision to get involved in Ukraine and to impose sanctions against Russian oil and gas. Gas prices wouldn’t be soaring if Democrats hadn’t gone after Russia. It was an unforced error.
When you control Congress and the White House, and voters are angry at you because they don’t think you have done anything for them, you don’t calm them down by telling them that they are wrong and stupid and that, actually, you have done all sorts of good things for them that they have been too ignorant or ungrateful to recognize. There’s only one way to campaign: tell people that you get it, you understand their pain, and you’re going to fight like hell to make them feel better.
“People can forgive you, even if you can’t get something done,” Nina Turner, a progressive challenging an establishment Democrat for an Ohio congressional seat, argues. “What they don’t like is when you’re not fighting. And we need to see more of a fighting spirit among the Democratic Party.”
For Democrats, however, not fighting – not even going through the motions of pretending they are fighting — is longstanding procedure. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi maintains a strict policy of not putting a measure up for a vote unless she is certain that a Democratic bill will pass. Like other corporate Democrats, she believes a losing vote is a sign of weakness.
Thus the refusal to try to federally legalize abortion rights.
Refusing to hold losing votes in Congress has led to one disappointment after another for progressives. After counting votes in the Senate, President Barack Obama decided in 2010 not to hold a vote on a “public option” in the Affordable Care Act. He blamed recalcitrant Republicans. Without forcing them to oppose this wildly popular idea on the record, however, Republicans could never be held to account in attack ads. (“Congressman Jackson hates people like you. That’s why he voted against health care for your babies!”) Meanwhile, Obama took heat from the left for breaking his campaign promise.
You can argue that you secretly, in your heart of hearts, wanted something that you never put up for a vote. But who will believe you?
Obama betrayed his promise to close Guantánamo for the same reason: he didn’t think he had the votes in the Senate. No one remembers that now. Americans who care about the issue remember that Obama was unwilling to spend political capital to shut down the camp.
Joe Biden’s adherence to Democrats’ count-votes-first practice on his Build Back Better infrastructure plan was more understandable. After conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin announced that he wouldn’t support it, the White House pulled the $1.75 trillion bill from Senate consideration because it would have highlighted internal divisions within the party. Sometimes, however, a rogue member of your own caucus must be reined in. If Democrats wanted to show their left-leaning base voters that they were fighters, they would have disciplined Manchin by taking away his committee memberships and held the vote despite inevitable defeat. Then they could have run ads against Republican senators who opposed a giant jobs package.
Democrats have failed to hold votes on increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, student loan forgiveness or bold action to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. While it is true that these ideas might go down to defeat against a united GOP and Democrats in Name Only like Manchin, young voters in particular would like to see them put up for a vote and fought for. And those “nays” could be leveraged against vulnerable Republicans.
Republicans understand the optics of appearing to fight for a cause dear to their voters even if it’s doomed—especially if it’s doomed. Knowing full well they didn’t stand a chance at succeeding, the GOP voted 70 times to repeal Obamacare. After Trump won in 2016, however, they didn’t move to repeal or truncate—because the ACA was popular. “Now that it makes a difference, there seems to not be the majority support that we need to pass legislation that we passed 50 or 60 times over five or six years,” Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama admitted. Fighting and losing—even pretending to fight only when defeat is assured—gets more results than pointing at your supposed actual accomplishments.
It may well be that corporate Democrats are too beholden to their major donors to, say, increase the minimum wage. Unless the polling changes in a big way, Democrats will have an opportunity to virtue-signal about the minimum wage and student-loan forgiveness the same way the Republicans did on the ACA beginning early next year.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)