The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The fall of Roe is the culmination of the Democratic establishment’s failures

President Biden, surrounded by Democratic lawmakers, at the White House on April 6. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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The overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the underwhelming reaction from senior Democratic leaders to that huge defeat, make the case even clearer that the party’s too-long-in-power leaders — including President Biden — need to move aside. On their watch, a radicalized Republican Party has gained so much power that it’s on the verge of ending American democracy as we know it.

On the day of the court’s momentous ruling eliminating a constitutional right that the Democratic Party had pledged to fiercely defend, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and House Democrats held a big event on the steps of the Capitol — to celebrate the passage of a fairly limited gun-control bill. Biden gave a short speech that didn’t include any ideas on how to reform an increasingly radical Supreme Court but did include a call for Democrats not to violently protest the ruling, as if his supporters would otherwise have started rioting en masse. Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.) called the decision “anti-climactic,” as if it were at all important that the ruling was expected. Officials across the party, including Pelosi, sent out fundraising emails, unwilling to focus solely on the ruling’s terrible policy impacts for even a day before mining it for electoral upside.

That behavior was discouraging, but it was not surprising. The past year and a half of Democratic control of Washington has been a major disappointment: Biden is more unpopular than Donald Trump was at this time in his presidency; the party’s agenda has stalled; Republican judges and state-level officials have aggressively attacked voting and abortion rights and Black and transgender people in particular with little pushback from Democrats. Biden’s kind words for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), architect of so much of what is happening, are both infuriating to Democrats and ineffective in winning any Republicans to his side.

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To be sure, inflation, the obstinacy of Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and the Republicans themselves have caused most of those problems. But the Democratic Party’s leaders have made constant blunders along the way. Most fundamentally, they have not adjusted to how politics is increasingly fought online, in state capitols and in other venues outside of Washington where Republicans are notching many of their victories. And while Republicans are attacking America’s democratic system itself, Democratic leaders and their allies are deeply invested in a far-less important cause: defeating candidates associated with star progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) in Democratic primaries in heavily liberal districts.

But the problem runs deeper than the past 18 months. Biden, Pelosi and the group of political and policy strategists who perpetually hold top jobs in Democratic politics have presided over disappointing results for more than a decade, setting the stage for the fall of Roe and the other struggles of 2021-2022 — most notably, the wipeout of Democrats in 2010 and 2014; Donald Trump’s victory in 2016; the narrower-than-expected Democratic win in 2020. The Republicans’ gains, particularly at the state level, have allowed them to pass restrictive abortion laws and other unpopular provisions, as well as gerrymander states so they don’t have to fear much electoral backlash. Trump’s victory resulted in the appointments of three of the five Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe. The failure to defeat Trump and Republicans resoundingly in 2020 left the Democrats with only 50 Senate seats, too few to change the filibuster rules and pass much of anything, including a national law guaranteeing abortion rights.

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Pelosi, Biden and other Democratic leaders of course don’t sit on the Supreme Court or in state legislatures. But too many of them have been major players in the party over the past two decades as it has failed to create an apparatus of media, think tanks and other institutions to rival what exists on the right. They have been deeply involved in bland Democratic campaigns and candidates who often lose key races to Republicans, even as the GOP has much less popular policy goals.

It’s not that these leaders are terrible at politics. There are numerous structural factors, such as the electoral college, that disproportionately hurt the Democrats. And this group can point to considerable accomplishments, as well: blunting much of the agendas of Presidents George W. Bush and Trump; playing big roles in promoting Biden and Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president; the passage of the Affordable Care Act. They have won more elections (2006, 2008, 2012, 2018, 2020) than they have lost (2004, 2010, 2014, 2016). Pelosi’s decision to keep Trump-aligned Republicans off the Jan 6. committee was smart, and the highly engaging way that Democrats have conducted the hearings themselves would not have happened without the speaker’s blessing.

But it hasn’t been enough. Their losses have allowed a radicalized Republican Party to gut abortion and voting rights, take control of most state governments and the federal judiciary, elect democracy-eroding figures such as Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and now stand on the verge of taking control of Congress and even more state governments this November and potentially the entire federal government in 2024.

And it’s not that the Republican establishment has done better — it has lost half the time, too. The critical difference, though, is that there have been several different Republican establishments over the past two decades, allowing the party to test out different strategies. In contrast, the Democratic leadership has aggressively blocked fresher faces from having much of a role in the party’s decision-making. Instead, we have watched over the past 18 months as Democrats made many of the same strategic mistakes that they did in 2009 and 2010, with some of the same people involved in the foibles.

It’s worth emphasizing just how long many Democratic leaders have been at the helm. In 2003, Pelosi became leader of the House Democrats, Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) became the party’s No. 2, and Clyburn became, the third-ranking leader. Biden, then a senator, was the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) have been in the party’s Senate leadership since 2005. The Republicans who held equivalent roles when these Democrats took power were Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), Rep. Tom DeLay (Tex.), Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio), Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.). All the Republicans but McConnell are long gone from national politics.

Now, the fall of Roe v. Wade is the culmination of these Democrats’ failures. I think it’s still possible Democrats keep control of Congress this November, because the party base could aggressively mobilize against the Republicans, particularly in light of the abortion decision. But that’s really another indictment of party leaders, who spent 2021 downplaying GOP radicalism while emphasizing building roads years from now. No matter what happens this election cycle, their previous defeats, lack of new strategies and open disdain for the party’s activists is too much to allow this group to remain in charge. The Americans who will most suffer from entrenched GOP rule — Black people and other traditionally marginalized groups in particular — deserve leaders who will fight as hard and creatively as possible for them, not a leadership class so invested in defending its own power, legacy and political approach.

It is essential that Pelosi follows through on her previously announced plans to step down from congressional leadership after this election. Clyburn, Durbin, Hoyer and Schumer should do the same. Biden should not seek reelection and instead allow a fresh voice to lead the party. If he insists on running again, he needs to bring in new advisers and rethink his political approach.

I could write another several thousands words detailing the mistakes and failures of these Democratic leaders. But I will conclude on a hopeful note. There is a real ideological divide between the center-left and left in the Democratic Party. But I think an equally and perhaps more important fissure is between the political approach of the Old Guard and those who embrace a modern style of politics, such as Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker; Sens. Brian Schatz (Hawaii) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.); Reps. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.), Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.); Boston Mayor Michelle Wu; Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried; and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

That group has a wide range of policy views, but in watching all of them, I sense that they understand how politics in 2022 actually works. Unlike Biden and Pelosi, they are not wedded to polls and bipartisanship and do not constantly distance themselves from the party’s activists. They are much more open to new thinking.

And this new generation will be in power soon. The Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn triumvirate is likely on its way out after the midterms. Biden can only run once more — though it would be better if he didn’t. The consultants and strategists who are tied to them will have less power after those politicians are no longer in office.

We don’t know exactly what can save the country from this radicalized GOP. But Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden don’t either — and after about 20 years, it’s well past time to give others a chance to lead.