For a long while — remember that in politics, two days comprise an eternity — it seemed as if the leaders of the two major parties were girding to fight the last war. Now it seems as if they are fighting to figure out what the last war really was about.
Was the Republican victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race, for example, about Donald J. Trump? (Plenty of evidence that it was, or at least about Trump’s base.) Was it, instead, about keeping a safe distance from Trump? (Lots of reasons to think that, too.) Was it about schools and who controls them? (Everybody thought it was at least a little bit about that, and maybe a lot.) Were the results in Virginia and New Jersey, where the Democrat barely squeaked out a victory in a contest he was expected to win with a double-digit margin, harbingers of the future? (That was the early consensus.) Or were they simply local contests over local issues? (Races for the governor’s chair usually are.)
So many questions, and so many reasons to check “all of the above” — except for the notion that “all of the above” is a logical contradiction. Unless, of course, the smart answer is that politics is full of contradictions and that commentators, whose analyses often involve internal contradictions, should simply live with it.
Damned if I know.
But I do know this: Democrats are in deep despair and also in a full-blown panic. (Aside: That deep despair may be a good thing. At least they passed a piece of meaningful legislation this month, a few days late and, in the progressives’ point of view, a lot of dollars short.)
And this: The Republicans are riding high. (Aside: In 1953, the year after Dwight D. Eisenhower swept to the presidency as a Republican, the Democrats won the gubernatorial races in both Virginia and New Jersey. Not only that, they also picked up 19 seats in the House and two in the Senate in the midterm congressional elections of 1954, making it look as if Ike, like Joe Biden today, was in deep peril for reelection in a rematch with his first opponent. Not so fast. The old general beat former Gov. Adlai Stevenson in Round Two in 1956 by 15 percentage points, sweeping 41 states.)
Now, a few “laws of politics” and the perspective they give to contemporary politics:
The first is that the party holding the White House usually loses the Virginia gubernatorial race. It’s now happened 11 of the last 12 times.
The second is the notion that parties holding the White House get shellacked in the first midterms following the presidential election. True enough. The Democrats lost 63 seats in the election following Barack Obama’s ascension to power and lost 54 the year after Harry Truman became president.
There are exceptions, but they require exceptional circumstances. The Democrats gained nine seats in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second year, but that came after the early New Deal was enacted. The Republicans gained eight seats in George W. Bush’s second year, but that came 14 months after the terrorist attacks of 2001, when Bush showed post-traumatic-stress leadership.
Will Biden face, or offer, unusual circumstances that could buoy his popularity in a way that would seep over to the Democrats? Not likely, though two scenarios are plausible: a national sentiment that COVID-19 has been conquered and that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. Or a Chinese attack on Taiwan, prompting an American response that wins public applause. The first can be earnestly hoped for, the latter devoutly dreaded.
Meanwhile, the civil war continues unabated in the Democratic Party. The other day, Mark Penn, adviser and pollster to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Andrew Stein, former president of the New York City Council, published a blunt assessment arguing that in this month’s elections, “the flight from the Democrats was disproportionately in the suburbs, and the idea that these home-owning, child-rearing, taxpaying voters just want more progressive candidates is not a sustainable one.” The proposed antidote to the Democrats’ troubles: Resist the progressives.
At the same time, the left-leaning Jacobin group released a study that naturally reached the opposite conclusion: “Populist, class-based progressive campaign messaging appeals to working-class voters at least as well as mainstream Democratic messaging. Candidates who named elites as a major cause of America’s problems, invoked anger at the status quo, and celebrated the working class were well received among working-class voters — even when tested against more moderate strains of Democratic rhetoric.”
Today, the Republicans are all in on the Glenn Youngkin strategy of appearing to be post-Trump figures who appeal to the Trump base while stoking anti-”woke” elements in public education. A week after the election, the New Hampshire Republican Party began distributing bumper stickers bellowing, simply, Parents Not Politicians. Their solicitation was ripped directly out of the Youngkin campaign primer and the Virginia GOP hornbook: “Democrats don’t want you to know what’s going on in the classroom. They don’t think parents should have any control over what their children are taught. That couldn’t be more wrong!”
They may sell a lot of those bumper stickers at two-for-$5. But can they sell education as a principal issue in contests for national office?
That is a particularly ironic question, given that Republicans since Ronald Reagan, who ran for president vowing to eliminate the Education Department, have ardently argued that education is a state and local issue. Even Eisenhower, who sent federal troops to integrate the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, and who supported the Sputnik-era National Defense Education Act to boost American teaching of science and mathematics, acknowledged that, as he put it, “schools should be operated under the authority of local communities and states.”
So as we look toward the midterms and the 2024 election, there is little clarity, but multiple complexities. The bumper stickers that both parties could put on sale would read simply: Contradictions R Us. At two-for-$5, they could make a bundle, and maybe make sense of things.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.