A Woke-Up Call for Democrats

WASHINGTON — In Shakespeare, when characters want to fulfill their desires, they escape to what’s been called the Green World.

And that’s what Democrats promised voters: that they could leave behind the vitriol and aggravation of Donald Trump’s America and escape to an Arden that was cool, calm and reassuring.

Democrats violated that pledge. On the way to that verdant forest, we got led into a circular firing squad. Tight margins in Congress do not bring out the best in pols.

“We promised to change the rancor and division,” said one top Democrat. “So we offered something else: division and rancor.”

Many who were sick of Trump chaos and ineptitude are now sick of Biden chaos and ineptitude. Scranton Joe was supposed to be the sensible, steady one.

After all, as Democrats are keenly aware, Trump lost the 2020 race as much as Biden won it. Only 44,000 votes in Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia saved Biden from an Electoral College tie.

And for a long time now, people have been watching the spectacle of Democrats grinding away at the sausage and fighting for their piece of the pie (to make a metaphoric meal). And it has not been a pretty picture.

The question raised by Tuesday’s debacle for Democrats is: Now that President Biden’s high poll ratings and good will are squandered, how do they turn the mishegoss into a winning message?

There’s some truth in what James Carville told Judy Woodruff: “What went wrong is this stupid wokeness. Don’t just look at Virginia and New Jersey. Look at Long Island, look at Buffalo, look at Minneapolis, even look at Seattle, Wash. I mean, this defund the police lunacy, this take Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools.”

There’s also some truth in what Representative Abigail Spanberger, a moderate Virginia Democrat in a tough re-election battle, told The Times’s Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns about the president: “Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”

Biden has pursued his two bills with Captain Ahab-like zeal; he pines to be F.D.R. and eclipse Barack Obama, who pushed him aside for Hillary.

Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi hail the bills as transformational. But what are you transforming into? The election cratering showed that such overweening efforts are putting off many voters who are still struggling just to get by, as they move beyond the degradation wrought by Trump and Covid.

While the Democrats wallow in a family food fight, Americans are still stressed and exhausted from the whole Covid ordeal, confronting high gas prices and stymied from getting the appliances and Christmas toys they want.

“I used to advise mayors, you can be as visionary as you want, but just make sure you take the garbage out and fill the potholes,’’ said David Axelrod, who oversaw messaging for Barack Obama.

Republicans have not lost their talent for coming up with boogeymen to scare white voters, and thanks to a dumb comment by Terry McAuliffe in a debate, they have succeeded in turning parents’ rights in schools into a wedge issue.

Some in the G.O.P. see Glenn Youngkin as a template for moving beyond Trump. The members of my family who voted for Trump are eager to see their party move back to a more palatable and recognizable form of conservatism.

We’ll see. So far, tiptoeing around Jabba the Trump has had limited utility. Despite everything, he still has great sway in the Republican Party.

And if the Supreme Court were to outlaw abortion and approve open carry on guns, that could scramble the equation all over again, sending moderate suburbanites back into the arms of Democrats.

Most important, Democrats have to come up with a vocabulary and a vision to elucidate how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework and Build Back Better will benefit people. B.I.F. sounds like Willy Loman’s son, and must we ask, to B.B.B. or not to B.B.B.? Yammering about the budget reconciliation process is not going to cut it. Tonally and emotionally, Democratic pols seem at odds with the electorate.

At the end of the day, Democrats are going to get some good stuff for Americans, but voters may not realize that because of the big hash the Democrats made with the bills.

Asked on Friday if the Democrats could not get out of their own way, Speaker Pelosi smiled dryly and replied, “Welcome to my world. This is the Democratic Party.” She sanguinely referred to the damaging internecine warring as “exuberance.”

Right now, the bills seem like a Washington abstraction, and it feels as though President Biden has been lost in a maze forever, grappling with the Minotaurs of Manchin, Sinema and progressives.

It’s analogous to Afghanistan. Biden did the right thing pulling us out of the quicksand, but people are mostly going to remember the catastrophic visuals of the botched exit.

There is a feeling, many Democrats say, that things are a little out of control — the Afghanistan departure, supply chains, crime, violence, Biden not being able to pass what he wants to pass or even pressing for the votes when he went to the Hill before he left for Europe.

The administration lost control of the virus story; it didn’t seem to have it together on mask or no mask, school or no school, vaccine mandates or no.

Friday’s strong jobs report and a rollout for the children’s vaccine gives Democrats a breather, but many are still wondering if Biden is up to the job. He will need to become a much better salesman than Biff Loman’s dad.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Back to top button