Politico reports that some Democrats want Biden to draw a sharper contrast with Republicans. They want him to attack Republicans for opposing popular items in his Build Back Better bill — expanded access to health care, lower prescription drug prices, more support for families and children — and frame this as the response to GOP attacks on Biden over inflation.
But Politico also reports this:
Democrats argue that Biden’s willingness to make more aggressive attacks against Republicans will be key to their success in 2022. Not only do party members want Biden to highlight GOP opposition to popular components of his social spending plan, they want him to go after Republicans for pushing voter restriction laws and embracing former President Donald Trump’s lies of election fraud and revisionist Jan. 6 history.
How often do you hear Democrats debating whether to go on offense against Republicans in a way that will highlight their ongoing radicalization against democracy in such terms?
Meanwhile, as Politico notes, some Democrats want a more aggressive posture against Republicans who have actively thwarted our coronavirus response, such as with bans on local and school mask mandates.
That’s good, yet you don’t often hear Democrats take the next step of discussing whether there’s a way to go on offense by blasting Republicans for putting children at greater health risk while fomenting threats against their teachers and educators. Biden toyed with this idea for a while, yet it seems to have largely vanished.
There’s also a reasonable case for trying to turn the tables this way in the critical race theory debates. This might entail hitting Republicans not just for stoking threats against educators, but also for fomenting civil conflict in schools and passing laws designed to discourage the teaching of the full historical truth about slavery, white supremacy and Jim Crow, and the impacts those continue to have today.
Much discussion among Democrats of how to approach those matters seems to envision mostly an array of defensive responses, from avoiding talking about them at all to aggressively calling out the left with a Sister Souljah-type attack for foisting activist terminology on the party. There’s little discussion of how Democrats might hold Republicans politically accountable for the deeper national aims their tactics reflect, and the harms they’re inflicting on our national life.
In fairness, for this to work, it would have to be coupled with a clearer effort to separate the bad from the good in the “wokeness” discourse and improve the Democratic response to parents worried about curriculums and control over education.
Biden struck a similar balance in 2020 on crime and policing: Amid protests and unrest, he sharply disagreed with the “defund the police” campaign but did not go out of his way to attack the left in a performative Sister Souljah-type way. Instead, he sided with the protesters’ deeper aims, and attacked Donald Trump and white supremacist violence as the true danger to law and order and public safety. Yes, Biden was uniquely positioned, ideologically and biographically, to make such an argument. But still: Why don’t we try to learn from that?
I don’t want to overstate the possibilities here. It may be that such an approach might not make much difference in the face of the persistence of the pandemic, public perceptions about inflation and supply chain woes, and the structural problems Democrats face. As Michael Tomasky writes, getting those things under control would probably go way further in righting Democratic fortunes than finding the magic formula in the culture wars would.
But as Tomasky also notes, the converse is true, too: It often happens that when Democrats do lean into culture war debates and take the forward-facing position that’s supposed to be dangerous, it ends up . . . not being dangerous at all.
It may also be that there are risks and downsides to such an approach. But the important point is that the possibility of taking on culture war arguments with an eye toward winning them on the substance should at least be part of the discussion.
The idea that Democrats would mostly let Republicans skate on many of these fronts without facing a much more meaningful, substantive challenge, when all these GOP tactics are doing such serious harm to our civic and political life, can’t be right.
This piece has been updated.