Some have argued that the 2020 election is a repudiation of Trump. Others have argued it is a rejection of the Democratic party. Those who argue the former point to Biden’s victory, winning back voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and flipping traditionally red states like Arizona, and possibly even Georgia. Those who argue the latter point to the ground lost by Democrats in the House, and the failure to win back the Senate, despite polls suggesting a blue wave. Both are correct. The results demonstrate an electorate that remains deeply divided.
For those who sought a strong rebuke of Trump’s menace — where even his staunchest allies in the Republican party have said he is a threat to our national security, democracy and health — they got a watered down repudiation. Biden won the popular vote by five million votes, and both the total number and ultimate margin of victory may increase once states certify final results. Voters, however, sent back to the Senate Trump’s henchmen who enabled his worst impulses. As I have written before, Trumpism will not magically disappear.
Unless a strong centrist leader emerges from the Republican party (are there any left?), expect the same level of uncompromising obstruction that has allowed it to thrive. Expect Don Jr., Ivanka, Mike, Nikki, Ted, Tom, and Josh to double down on autocracy, fascism, race-baiting, and division. Because it has worked. Don’t count out Trump himself who never backs down from a fight or concedes a loss. Their neofascist tendencies will be magnified by Fox, Breitbart and company, as well as armed bands of thugs.
The best hope for any legislative consensus is that Joe Biden knows Mitch McConnell and will look to make deals. The deals may not satisfy the base of either party, but it may help the American people defeat Covid and restore the economy. This, however, is the new Mitch that let 400 House-passed bills die on his desk while calling Pelosi the obstructionist, blocked Garland while fast tracking Barrett, and has not congratulated Biden on his victory.
In addition to drawing on Biden’s deep well of experience and his desire to find common ground, what else must the party do going forward? First, the Democrats need to seize the mantle as the party of the big tent. Welcome the Biden Republicans and the AOC progressives alike. As in the 2020 election, the common enemy is rising fascism, and they must work together to restore equilibrium to our democracy.
Second, assess where to make leadership changes for the next round. Though the Democratic majority has slimmed in the House, the races lost were mostly in districts that Trump had won in 2016. There was overconfidence that a second blue wave would increase their majority, but they retained control nevertheless. Pelosi is tough-as-nails and will continue to make a great Speaker, or she could uphold the promise she made in 2018 to step down and allow new leadership to rise.
Unlike the blue wave in the House in 2018, the Senate Democrats lost ground in 2018, losing Senate seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota while picking up only two seats. In 2020, the Democrats netted only one seat despite confidence that they would retake the majority. There should be a reckoning with Senate leadership and the DNC. Feelings may change should the Democrats pull out victories in both Georgia races, though a fifty/fifty split is not what was expected.
The DNC would benefit from Stacey Abrams as its next leader. If she could do in Florida, Texas and North Carolina what she accomplished in Georgia, the balance of power might permanently shift. The Senate Democrats should also consider fresh leadership. Elizabeth Warren would go to battle rather than roll over; Amy Klobuchar would be fierce but would work across the aisle like Biden to get stuff done. Either would add a spine the Senate Democrats currently lack.
Third, the Democrats must strengthen the blue wall and extend it. The blue wall include states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania where white union workers used to stand solidly with the Democrats. There is a large segment of America that believes that government does not work for them. They have seen the middle-class crumble. They know it takes two or three jobs now to get by. Many see Trump as someone who will fight entrenched government interests, and for them. Democrats must develop and implement an economic message (not green jobs, however much I like green jobs) that resonates with these Americans. Show that “build back better” works, investing in infrastructure and jobs that restore the middle class and a sense of economic security.
Fourth, the Democrats must implement a long-term strategy to take back the state houses. Democrats banked on seizing state legislatures that will redraw district lines next year but did not flip a single state legislature. Bills proposing nonpartisan commissions to set district lines face a tougher challenge given the incoming Congress and a judiciary inclined to leave that question to the elected representatives, meaning that the battle remains local.
Fifth, the Democrats must find a way to contain the massive flows of disinformation. Trump supporters truly believe that Biden has dementia and is corrupt while their leader is a stable and successful genius. They believe this not because it is true, but because it is what they hear, repeatedly, ad nauseum, from their chosen information sources. Restoring the Fairness Doctrine requiring news sources to present both sides of an opinion would help, if applied to cable and social media. The Federal Communications Commission should be stricter in its oversight to deter chronic lying and politicking that violate its standards.
Last, the Democrats must fight corruption. Biden is inclined to look forward, not back, as Obama did with torture. Failure to hold accountable those who commit crimes, however, only emboldens them to do it again. Biden should not direct outcomes, but Agency Inspectors General, Congress, and U.S. attorneys should investigate legitimate corruption claims without fear or favor. Bullies only respond to power. The nation needs a clear signal of right and wrong, which is an essential part of healing the nation and restoring our democracy.