Ron DeSantis emailed me the other day — me and hundreds of thousands of others, I imagine. “Our country is currently facing a great threat,” the Florida governor began. I assumed that — with inflation soaring, gas prices still sky-high, and the economy in danger of slowing down — he would hit hard on those themes. But these bread-and-butter issues were not mentioned anywhere in the email. “A new enemy has emerged from the shadows,” he continued, “that seeks to destroy and intimidate their way to a transformed state, and country, that you and I would hardly recognize.” As you might by now have guessed, “This enemy is the radical vigilante woke mob.”
Some of this is a clever effort by DeSantis to tap into the base of the Republican Party and outflank Donald Trump on the kinds of issues that propelled Trump to the Republican nomination in 2016. And a recent New Hampshire poll of likely Republican primary voters that had DeSantis neck and neck with Trump should worry the former president. The governor has much less name recognition than Trump — and yet, in a bellwether state, the Floridian has caught up.
But this also reflects the looming electoral strategy among Republicans, who believe they have found a deep vulnerability among Democrats. A recent, comprehensive New York Times poll seemed to confirm this view. Analyzing some of the findings of the poll, David Leonhardt wrote, “Many Democrats — both politicians and voters, especially on the party’s left flank … seem more focused on divisive cultural issues than on most Americans’ everyday concerns, like inflation.” To be fair, President Biden still beats Trump in a head-to-head matchup, but that dynamic might not help the Democrats in the midterm elections, when Trump is not on the ballot.
There is plenty of evidence that the Democratic Party has moved left, that it is out of sync with Americans on many of these cultural issues, and that it needs to correct course. But it needs to do so clearly, forcefully and repeatedly. Republicans are clever at weaponizing the words of a few left-wing Democrats and branding them as the face of the party. For example, I have not found a single senior national Democratic leader who has ever endorsed the idea of “defunding the police” — Biden actually proposed increased funding for cops — and yet Republicans have repeated this mantra constantly.
Democrats need to learn how to fight back — for example, by highlighting the most extreme abortion laws passed in Republican states and branding the Republican Party with them. In Oklahoma, abortions are now banned, with very few exceptions, from the moment of conception onward. In Mississippi, a doctor could face 10 years in prison for performing an illegal abortion.
Yet Democrats have another big weak spot, and it centers on performance. Democrats in power often seem unable to get anything done. Democrats squabble more — and more in public — than Republicans. Despite the fact that much of the GOP establishment despised Trump, once he was elected, they nearly all fell in line, mostly passed his agenda and supported him unfailingly. Democrats, by contrast, rarely remind the public of the two big bills that they did pass — covid-19 relief and infrastructure — and in fact spent months bickering over the third one they’ve proposed, Build Back Better. Why is the Biden administration not announcing large new public works projects every week, financed by the federal funds appropriated in those two bills?
The answer is that it has become very difficult to build anything in America, especially in blue states. President Barack Obama, who passed another big infrastructure bill in 2009, famously said later that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.” That’s because, as New York Times columnist Ezra Klein has noted, the number of permits, reviews, and delays that have become part of the normal approval process have delayed or doomed the prospects of large-scale public projects. Democrats have become paralyzed by their own ideas and interest groups, and no one seems able to break through and actually get things done.
It’s not that there is any shortage of money. Consider the state where I live, New York. The state budget is an eye-popping $220 billion. Florida, with nearly 2 million more residents, spends half that sum. New York City’s budget is $100 billion. That’s more than double the budget for the state of Illinois — and Illinois’ population is some 50 percent larger! New York is the most heavily taxed state in the country; its tax rates are highly progressive. The top 1 percent of New York City residents pay more than 40 percent of the city’s income taxes. And yet, New York’s infrastructure and services at every level are in bad shape.
This is not a perception problem. It is a reality problem. Democrats need to once more become the party that gets stuff done, builds things and makes government work for people. That’s a lot more important to most Americans than using the right pronouns.