Democrats Need More Than Anti-Trumpism
McAuliffe lost because he had no vision or agenda, and defended positions out of the mainstream with many voters
Why did Terry McAuliffe want to be governor of Virginia?
It’s hard to say. He presented no affirmative agenda or vision in this race. But we do know that he wrote off entire groups of voters, e.g. parents, based on a political fallacy and that his opponent wanted to cut taxes and defended parents’ role on education.
The thermostatic response that occurs among voters whenever they see one party with too much power - like Democrats winning the presidency and Senate while retaining control of the House in 2020 - certainly didn’t help and likely explains a good deal of the results. Even so, given McAuliffe’s lackluster and aimless campaign it wasn’t hard to see the ultimate outcome.
It’s easy to blame “dark money groups” and conservative media outlets like Fox News for the prominent role education issues played in the Virginia governor’s race. These groups and outlets, many progressives tell us, have ginned up an utterly fake controversy over the allegedly anti-racist approaches being adopted by schools in Virginia and elsewhere across the country. At core, this argument amounts to what our colleague Ruy Teixeira calls the Fox News Fallacy: the idea that if conservative outlets and groups criticize something – anything – there couldn’t possibly be any foundation to the criticism and it’s “the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often.”
That’s especially the case when it comes to an issue that hits as close to home – literally – as education. As the reporter Alec MacGillis noted, pre-election polling indicated that voters with kids in K-12 schooling favored Republican contender Glenn Youngkin over McAuliffe by nine- and fifteen-point margins. What’s more, he argues, discontent on education policy probably had as much to do with lengthy COVID-related school closures as anything else.
At best, the failure to address or even acknowledge popular concerns – or worse, dismiss them as imaginary – doesn’t help Democratic candidates win elections. At worst, it leaves them vulnerable to attack in ways that actively undermine their electoral chances. It won’t do to indulge in the Fox News Fallacy and pretend it’s purely a question of racist backlash artificially cultivated by nefarious donors or media outlets.
It’s something that translates to the national level as well: President Biden would do well to focus more strongly on the economy and COVID pandemic moving forward. That argues for passing his infrastructure and Build Back Better legislation with alacrity so the administration can turn its attention to the two main challenges the country still faces. One place to start would be encouraging local governments to use untapped American Rescue Plan funds to help their residents cope with rising food, energy, and housing costs this winter.
Lessons going forward: Don’t dismiss voters’ fears. Recognize that most Democrats are normal working- and middle-class voters, not leftists. Reach out beyond the base with a message of equal rights and dignity for all people—centered on core concerns around jobs, the economy, and health care wrapped in patriotic values.
There’s still plenty of time for the Biden administration to right the ship. But it needs to address the actual concerns of Americans as they are, not as the administration or progressive activists might wish them to be.