Opinion: The problem with Democrats

Published: 5/23/2022 6:02:10 AM
Modified: 5/23/2022 6:00:16 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

The Democrats are facing a scary mid-term election. Parties in power typically lose ground in the mid-terms. Add high gas prices and inflation to the mix, issues where voters often blame office-holders, and Democratic odds plummet.

As a big tent party, perspectives vary dramatically about how Democrats should respond to a possible electoral debacle. Party centrists like President Biden and former President Obama seem to think there is primarily a communication problem. Democrats have failed to make their case to the public. As Obama has said, “we got a story to tell, just got to tell it.”

Both President Biden and Obama would tout the virtues of the American Rescue Plan and the administration’s COVID-19 response. While these accomplishments are real and did confer benefits to many Americans, as a political strategy, this is a guaranteed loser.

Polls show that 74 percent of Americans think America is “on the wrong track.” Biden’s approval rating has fallen sharply, especially among young people. Are Democrats really going to run on the idea that Americans need to appreciate how good their lives are? Reporter John Nichols of The Nation magazine shows how this would be a replay of 1994 and 2010. Centrist Democrats tried essentially the same play with losing results.

Let me lay out the progressive response for how Democrats should forge ahead. To be the party of the people, not their corporate donors, the Democrats need a course correction. They need to stand for some tangible progressive goals and they need some additional accomplishments to point to that could mobilize their base.

The Democratic leadership is profoundly out of touch with its own party base. Unlike the Republicans who embrace the outrage of their base no matter how crazy, Democratic leaders are generally terrified of their base. You often hear it said that Democrats bring a knife to a gun fight. Sometimes it seems like Democrats don’t know how to fight.

Since Roe v Wade stands on the brink of being overturned, I will cite the example of abortion rights. Americans, and particularly American women, are facing an epic disaster: the loss of constitutional rights that have been guaranteed for fifty years. It is hard to overstate the magnitude of the loss.

While Republicans prioritized restricting and eliminating abortion, Democrats have long sidelined abortion rights. Many Democratic leaders have been afraid to even say the word “abortion.” Joe Biden himself did not say the word until 200 days into his presidency.

The Roe news demonstrates the poverty of the Democratic response. Even though Roe has been under serious attack for at least 40 years, Democrats failed to codify the law or take steps to prepare for the current horrendous outcome. Whether it was the Hyde Amendment or state restrictions on abortion, Democrats have often conciliated the anti-abortion forces. For many years they have been afraid to make abortion an issue they stood behind.

Even now, Democratic Party leadership including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn are supporting Texas anti-abortion Congressman Henry Cuellar in a primary battle against abortion rights advocate and civil rights attorney Jessica Cisneros. The FBI recently raided Cuellar’s home and campaign office.

This is how Democratic leaders fight for abortion rights when Roe is going down the drain? They support an anti-abortion politician being investigated for corruption over a highly competent and competitive pro-choice candidate. The Democratic leadership is committing political malpractice. It looks like party leaders stand for nothing except their own power.

There is a complete lack of vision on the Democratic side. In contrast, the Republicans engineered a long-term campaign to destroy all abortion rights in the U.S. They will likely try to extend bans beyond the states where abortion becomes outlawed. Whether it is access to medication abortion, the right to travel to states where abortion is legal for care, or the criminalization of those having abortions and their medical providers, legal challenges are certain.

A wider constellation of rights than just abortion rights stand gravely endangered. The same reasoning employed by Justice Alito could be used to overturn marriage equality, LBGTQ rights and contraceptive rights.

Although highly unpopular, the anti-abortion forces stand on the brink of success. Their movement-building has obviously been very effective. They are in the process of gutting reproductive rights for millions.

Democrats can learn from the anti-abortion movement. Democrats need to flip the script and build an abortion rights movement that has its own moral fervor. The anti-abortion movement had lost Roe v Wade by a 7-2 Supreme Court margin. It took 50 years of organizing but the movement shows how an outsider political movement can strengthen the insider political battle and change the composition of the Court.

The Democratic brand is damaged goods because it has failed to deliver. Even holding the White House and both Houses of Congress, Democratic accomplishments are so disappointing. The high hopes of Build Back Better have been dashed. Biden could not use the bully pulpit to corral Manchin or Sinema. In spite of the looming climate catastrophe, the Democrats did not succeed in passing even the climate provisions of Build Back Better. Nor could they protect voting rights.

To regain the political initiative, Democrats need to stand up for working people, not the professional-managerial elite. So many Americans are struggling with low wages, debt, homelessness and too-expensive housing, and lack of health care. The gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else has become immense.

I believe the best course for Democrats is to stand for goals that represent change like Medicare for all, $15 minimum wage, cancellation of significant student loan debt, support for union organizing, immediate action on climate, and unequivocal support for abortion rights and protection of voting rights. Democrats must oppose the disgusting hate and xenophobia from the other side.

To win, Democrats will need a big turnout from their core constituencies including working people, women, minorities and young people. Even without Congress, Biden could do some things which would mobilize his base.

Biden could use executive authority to forgive the first $50,000 in federal student loan debt for every borrower with federal student loans. He could find more ways to support union organizing which he seems inclined to do. He could crack down on Wall Street and monopolies. He could expand the refugee cap for immigrants. He could grant clemency to Native American leader Leonard Peltier.

Democrats need to give their voters reasons to turn out. The absolute debasement of the Republican Party does not guarantee Democratic turnout. Democrats need to junk their unearned self-righteousness. The reversal of Roe is a warning shot and much worse could come down.

Democrats will never match Republicans in amoral ruthlessness but you have to admire the Republican level of fight and never backing off. Too often Democrats appear scared of their own shadows as has been the case with abortion rights.

The swimmer Diana Nyad once said, “A champion is someone who never gives up.” The Democrats could use some of that spirit. The stakes could not be much higher.




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