There are many factors that may have played a role in the Virginia governor’s race — President Biden’s current political woes, a less-than-scintillating Democratic candidate, the Republican’s phony critical race theory ploy or some combination of these. Whatever the precise explanation, Democrats are playing defense — and not effectively — when it comes to Republican rhetoric on race and education.

This week, deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre showed how to start fighting back against Republicans’ contradictory and deceptive stance.

Asked about critical race theory in the Virginia contest on Thursday, she began with a full-throated defense of accurate history in instruction: “So, look, America, as you heard the president say before, is a great country,” she said. “And great countries are honest, right? They have to be honest with themselves about the history, which is good and the bad. And our kids should be proud to be Americans after learning that history.”

Democrats, Jean-Pierre explained, have allowed themselves to be painted as teaching the “bad” stuff about America. She correctly framed the issue as teaching kids to be proud about overcoming our challenges. Eliminating the story of individual and collective struggles to form a more perfect union is not only disinformation, but also unpatriotic.

Jean-Pierre then made an argument Republicans used to invoke: “Fundamentally, we believe a school’s curriculum isn’t a federal decision. It’s rightly up to communities around the country — the parents, the school, the school board, the teachers and the administrators. And that means that politicians … should not be dictating what our kids are being taught.”

Teachers across the country are caught in the middle of the latest flash point in America's culture war: critical race theory. Here's what it entails. (Adriana Usero, Drea Cornejo, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

Indeed, Republicans once upon a time used to deplore big government meddling from inside the Beltway. It’s fair to ask the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) why he thinks he should tell schools in, say, Maryland how to teach history. Democrats should not be shy about arguing that the last thing we want is Confederate flag boosters in Congress writing lesson plans.

Jean-Pierre next pivoted to offense, with a much-deserved takedown of Republicans’ blatantly dishonest rhetoric. She declared that when it comes to nonexistent critical race theory instruction, “Republicans are lying. They’re not being honest. … And they’re cynically trying to use our kids as a political football.” If only every Democrat let Republicans have it with such vigor, we might have a fact-based discussion about education.

Most critically, Jean-Pierre made the case that Republicans are the last people to be lecturing on support for education:

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They’re talking about our kids when it’s — when it’s election season, but they won’t vote for them when it matters. You know, Republicans did not vote for the American Rescue Plan. … In that plan, it had funding to make sure that schools were open, to make sure that our kids got back to school. And they didn’t vote for that, and that was a key component of the American Rescue Plan. We know how important it is to make sure that our kids have in-person learning for their mental well-being and also so that they can actually learn. And so that is something that the Republicans refuse — absolutely refuse to vote for.
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It’s a truism that no matter how deceitful Republicans may be, Democrats cannot afford to ignore voters’ concerns. If voters hear CRT is a real issue or believe Democrats are dismissive of parents’ concern about their children’s education, it’s up to Democrats to push back — forcefully.

Whether the ginned-up issue is “open borders” (which neither Democrats in Congress nor the White House supports) or “defunding the police” (again, which neither supports), unaddressed allegations become conventional wisdom in the right-wing echo chamber that remains devoted to concocting a blatantly untrue portrait of their opponents and scaring voters.

Shield PAC, founded by a group moderate House members to defend like-minded Democrats against right-wing smears, operates on the premise that false accusations left unchallenged are deadly to their rank-and-file. Matt Bennett, co-founder of the group and Third Way, tells me, “Fighting back effectively in the culture wars — on crime, immigration or schools — requires Democrats to embrace and repeat an aggressive, three-step strategy.”

First, Democrats must “recognize that denial means political death.” Even if GOP claptrap about “defunding the police” does not represent the vast majority of Democrats’ views, or if CRT is not taught in Virginia’s schools, Democrats must not dismiss voters’ concerns about crime and education. Second, Bennett warns, “it is imperative to establish that the Democrat does not agree with the extreme position that’s being ascribed to them, which means a forceful, persuasive rebuttal is the first and best line of defense. That’s exactly what we created Shield PAC to do.” And finally, he shares Jean-Pierre’s view that Republicans are vulnerable on issues such as education “after decades of relentless attacks on school budgets and teachers” and some governors “seeking to ban books.”

In a similar vein, Republicans voted against the American Rescue Plan that included funding to keep police on payroll. The only one denying funding to the police is the GOP.

For pushing back against Republican lies, explaining their own record and refusing to shy away from political combat, we can say, well done, Ms. Jean-Pierre and Shield PAC. The rest of the party should follow their examples.