With the awful but unsurprising news this week that the Supreme Court is likely to overturn Roe, we are faced with one of those situations that often happens in politics, where some really bad news spurs activists, voters, and donors to engage in more political activity in order to push back. Democratic strategists and candidates are already preparing to use the abortion issue a lot in their campaigns, which is a good thing: access to safe and legal abortions is both a great issue to appeal to women swing voters in the suburbs, and a great issue to motivate more voter turnout among young and unmarried women voters who tend to be heavily Democratic. All those votes will be desperately needed if we are to compete in the 2022 elections.
As good an issue as abortion is for Democrats, though, we need to avoid the temptation of talking mostly or only about abortion. The McAuliffe campaign made this mistake, and it cost him badly: besides tying Youngkin to Trump, the main issue in its advertising was abortion.
Democratic campaigns need to have a broader narrative about the issues that matter in people’s everyday lives. Abortion is one of those issues for many women voters: even if you’ve never had an abortion, the idea that politicians and judges might take that right away from you or tell you that they have control over your most personal medical decisions, is weighted with all kinds of symbolic and substantive dismay.
But it can’t be the only thing voters hear from Democrats. Voters want to know who politicians and political parties are, what they stand for, what they are going to do to help people in their daily lives. Voters care about the here and now, about kitchen table issues that hit their pocketbooks and add to their quality of life. The problem with only talking about any one issue is that voters care about a lot of things, and they don’t like politicians who are one dimensional. They care urgently about whether they can find good jobs with a decent wage; whether they can afford health care, child care, groceries, and gas; whether they can dream of sending their kid to college; and whether they can retire with dignity. Those core economic issues are the highest priority for the large majority of voters, especially including both Democratic base voters and working-class swing voters.
Way too often, though, people don’t hear Democrats talking about the kitchen table economic issues that impact on people’s lives every day. There are a variety of reasons as to why, it’s a mix of different things with different candidates. Sometimes it is because other issues are the bright shiny object that attract more attention, social media notice, and online donors. Sometimes it’s because big donors you are trying to raise money from don’t want you to talk about economic issues that might affect their corporate bottom lines. Sometimes it is because their consultants think attacking Trump or the local Republican candidate is better than talking about plain vanilla issues like jobs and health care that are loved by most voters.
Beyond the issues they talk about in their ads, mail, social media, and stump speeches, Democratic candidates desperately need to tell a better story about who they are, why they are Democrats, what their values are, and who they are fighting for -- hopefully that is the voters in their district, but with some campaigns it’s hard to tell. I’m not really talking here about the classic candidate biographical ads that most campaigns open their TV ad campaign with, although if they are good ads they will contribute to telling that story. Candidates need to weave their personal story into the broader narrative of their entire campaign. That story shouldn’t be purely personal: it needs to tell a bigger story about what is going on in America right now, and what is at stake in the election. In this moment of our country’s political history, all political races have become more and more nationalized, and that is not going to change because it’s a non-presidential cycle. So voters need to know not only about the candidate running in their district or state, they need to know how this election relates to what is happening in our country right now.
We are in a different kind of historical moment right now. Tip O’Neill used to say that all politics is local, and in his era it was true. But with the decline in local news, the spread of nationalized online messaging, and the hardening of partisan polarization, Democratic candidates can’t just run as a good local person who cares about one or two big issues. They have to make the case for why they are Democrats. And while it’s great to emphasize your common sense and political independence when running in more reddish states or districts, I would argue that it is especially important in those places to tell people why you are a Democrat in a broader way than just focusing on a single issue or on your personal bio.
Here is an example of the heart of the stump speech I would give:
The stakes in this election are higher than most people realize. There are two paths we might go down, and they couldn’t be more different.
The reason I’m a Democrat running for office this year, is that Democrats want to get things done for working families on the issues that most impact their lives: their jobs; their wages; the prices they have to pay for essentials like health care, housing, and child care; and whether we are protecting our country by following the science on Covid. That’s why Democrats have worked hard to pass legislation cutting prescription drug prices and other health care costs; why they got us a $1400 Covid relief check and got our local governments more money for public safety and education at the height of the pandemic; why they are creating millions of new jobs in solar and wind power; why they made the biggest investment ever in rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges; and why they gave us the Child Tax Credit, universal Pre-K, and a reduction in child care costs. All of this paid for by taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
That is the path I want to keep going down. Down the other path, most Republicans voted no on everything I just talked about -- the only one any of them supported was roads and bridges, and even there most of them voted no. Republicans instead have have cheered for the rioters that stormed our sacred Capitol refused to discipline their members who called for assassinating Democratic members of Congress; tried to make it harder to vote and impossible for women to get abortions; and have opposed making millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share in taxes.
Down one path we can have a better country where working families have economic security and a better quality of life, where scientists are listened to, and where most people have the freedom to build good lives for themselves and their families. Down the other path, we will have more chaos and our freedoms will be shut down. Join me and the Democrats this year.
Democrats should definitely talk about abortion in 2022: it will help us a lot to do so. But we can’t convince people to vote for us based on only one issue: we need to have a narrative that tells more about the fundamental choice this country is going to make next year and in 2024.