The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Democrats can solve their enthusiasm problem

President Biden speaks about the status of the country's fight against covid-19 on March 30 at the White House. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

A raft of polling shows enthusiasm among Democrats about the midterms substantially trails that of Republicans. That is particularly troubling given that even in the best political climate, Democrats struggle to draw their voters to the polls in midterm elections (thereby boosting the percentage of older, White and conservative voters).

Democrats have plenty of reasons to be glum. The president’s ratings are crummy, inflation is high, and their dreams for voting rights reform and a transformative agenda crashed and burned in the Senate. It does not help that President Biden talks incessantly about the proposals he did not achieve (e.g., subsidized child care).

It is not unusual for the party controlling the White House to lose seats in the midterms. It is a political truism that it is easier to rile up voters upset about what the party in power is doing (or failing to do) than to defend what is invariably an incomplete, imperfect record. That does not mean Democrats are helpless, but it does require the White House to rethink its approach.

To the dismay of many Democrats, Biden remains wedded to the futile goals of “bipartisanship” and “lowering the temperature.” Frustrated Democrats make the point that there can be no real bipartisanship with a party that plays to QAnon conspiracy theorists, actively discourages covid vaccinations, systematically undermines access to voting, harbors unhinged racists and still perpetuates the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. There’s no lowering the temperature, they reason, when the opposition is burning down democratic institutions and fanning violence. This is not time for a “kumbaya” group hug.

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If that argument does not persuade Biden to change his tone and message, then perhaps raw political calculation will persuade him: By remaining so studiously above the fray and refusing to identify Republicans as the threat to our democracy, he has sapped his own base of energy and allowed Republicans free rein to light up their voters.

So what can be done to narrow the enthusiasm gap? Biden and the rest of the party must paint an accurate picture of what a Republican-led Congress would look like. Chaos. Vicious partisanship. Gridlock.

Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), have already indicated they’ll look for every opportunity to impeach Biden. A group of Republicans actually filed impeachment articles last year. Does anyone think 2024 Republican presidential contenders won’t leap at the chance to push for impeachment proceedings?

Republicans have also made clear they have no qualms about shutting down the government, defaulting on the debt and holding up key nominees for critical national security positions. Should another Supreme Court justice retire or die, no one can seriously believe the party that denied President Barack Obama even a hearing on his Supreme Court pick would allow consideration of Biden’s. These are not invented concerns; they are things Republicans have already tried or promised to do.

Then there is what passes for “policy” on the Republican side. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has already revealed his tax-the-poor plan and scheme to repeal entitlement programs. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has vowed to repeal Obamacare. That alone should be enough to engage the Democratic base. If only the party apparatus — from the president on down — would clearly articulate the policy debacle that would follow if Republicans take the majority.

Finally, Democrats cannot be shy about focusing on the onslaught of invasive, cruel and tyrannical measures Republicans are pushing at the state level — from bounties for those who turn in women seeking abortions, to threatening to take transgender children away from parents who seek legitimate medical care, to creating a litigation machine to attack teachers trying to teach about civil rights. This is an agenda that seeks to turn Americans against one another, create a hellish surveillance state and solidify America as a White, Christian nation.

Indeed, the attacks on Republicans are so obvious and abundant, it is a wonder what Democrats are waiting for. Granted, it is hard to get an unruly, diverse party on the same page, but the problem begins in the Oval Office. Unless and until Biden drops the “Republicans aren’t so bad — we can work with them!” fantasy and uses the bully pulpit to pound away at the threat posed by Republicans, Democratic voters won’t see much urgency in turning out in November.

If Democrats want to minimize their losses, they first have to persuade the president to defend the soul of America. After all, that’s why he ran for president, right?