November 3, 2021

As Wendy Williams would say, "How you doing?" I feel like crap, frankly. I was wrong to be optimistic about Virginia. Terry McAuliffe really tanked, and this morning, the cable stations are full of advice for Democrats. (Yes, Phil Murphy will win in NJ, but it's tighter than I expected.)

Josh Marshall writes about what he calls the real reason for last night's defeat in Virginia: Biden is unpopular. His approval rating dropped ten points. People are paying more for basic commodities and we have shortages of various consumer goods. (It's the economy, stupid!) Then there’s COVID. "It’s just the fact of the situation. People want COVID to be over. But it’s not over. He’s the President. He takes a hit for that," he writes in Talking Points Memo:

Then there’s the other problem: President Biden looks weak. The pull out from Afghanistan plays some role in this. But the real driver is the months long spectacle of the President and his party unable to pass the basic legislation that makes up his agenda. Negotiating, begging, false starts, canceled votes. A President of the United States stymied by two obscure Senators the vast majority of Americans have never even heard of. Obviously this has deeply demoralized Democrats around the country – a fact which I think played a significant role in McAuliffe’s defeat. But for less committed voters – a smaller portion of the electorate but the floating segment that decides most elections – the President just looks weak. He says this and that is important but can’t seem to get this or that done. It’s through that prism that these voters view an uncertain economy. Regardless of what the President is trying to do, he can’t do it. If you’re not terribly ideological or plugged into the policy and legislative details what you see is a country beset with problems and an ineffective President. That’s a bad, bad combination for the President’s party.

This may all sound like I’m pretty down on Joe Biden. But that’s not it precisely. It is more that some situations are really, really hard to solve. After the horror of the Trump years Democrats swept back into office with extremely high expectations. Indeed, many Democratic partisans believe a list of big legislative items are of close to existential significance for the country as well as the Democratic party. And yet Democratic voters sent them into office with the slenderest of congressional margins. 50 senators. Vast expectations crashing against meager means.

For months Democrats have been demanding that Biden get tough with the two Senate hold-outs or simply make them fall into line. I sympathize. I’ve wanted to as well. But it’s not clear what power he has to accomplish that. Try harder isn’t a good answer to that question. People have the idea that Presidents can simply overawe legislators by being President. But that’s not really the case. They can do that when they have some tangible leverage. For Biden it’s not clear what that leverage is.

Notwithstanding this, I do fault some of the President’s advisors for what I can only call a certain lack of urgency, a sense that you just work through the legislative process and … well, it takes a long time and there’s nothing really you can do about that. But again, I’m not sure given the number of seats Democrats have in the House and the Senate what I would have actually done differently. I probably would have jumped up and down more and made the argument about urgency. But make things go faster or make recalcitrant Senators less recalcitrant? I’m not sure how I would have accomplished that.

There are a lot of nagging issues that add up, and I've heard them all. For instance: Why is Louis DeJoy still running the postal service? What has happened to all his documented conflicts of interest? Why is Biden not hounding the Republicans for an attempted coup? Why is the Department of Justice sending such mixed messages in the sentencing for those who took part? Why is nothing happening to the people at the top of the coup? Why isn't Merrick Garland telling us what he's doing?

The other is messaging. Now, you cannot discount the huge advantage of having a media property like Fox that will repeat and amplify whatever batshit talking point Republicans manufacture, and now CNN and MSNBC are jumping on the bandwagon because they sure do miss those Trump ratings. The Republicans have that. So anything I say has to be seen in that light.

But our basic message is, hey, we're just the cleanup crew. Again and again, we're the people who come in and clean up the mess left behind by previous Republican administrations, and one of the biggest areas is the economy. But if you look at the polls, people still believe Republicans are better with the economy! Democrats tend to think results speak for themselves. They don't. Most people aren't economists. All they know is, gas is going up, groceries are going up, and they're nervous.

And McAuliffe screwed up. Instead of talking about his past accomplishments as governor, he concentrated on tying Youngkin to Trump. But the Trump memories are fading, and all Youngkin had to do was look reasonable. He did.

For years, I've been talking about how Republicans are a successful sales and marketing culture, and Democrats are an academic culture: "Didn't you see our white paper on this?" Democrats used to be able to sell their accomplishments and ideas. Now they speak in footnotes.

Can you help us out?

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