Opinion | How Democrats can survive the midterm jinx – The Washington Post


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Jim Kessler is executive vice president and Jon Cowan is president of Third Way, a center-left think tank.“Grim,” “alarm” and “panic” seem to be the words of choice as Democrats head into the 2022 midterm elections. After all, in 1994 and 2010, the last two times Democrats held the presidency and both houses of Congress, they lost a combined 117 House and 15 Senate seats.Two dozen House Democrats are already heading for the exits, President Biden’s approval rating sits at a chilly 43 percent, and memories of last November’s twin debacles in Virginia and New Jersey will linger long after Democrats lost one governor’s race and barely held the other in reliably blue territory.Story continues below advertisementBut panic is not a strategy, and neither is repeating past mistakes. Here are five steps Democrats should take to have a shot at preserving their majorities after 2022.The most fitting word to describe the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial results is … “normal.” Both Democratic candidates shed precisely 12 points off Joe Biden’s performance in their respective states — in line with the vote shifts away from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama after their wins in 1992 and 2008.The fact is, the president’s party loses 10 to 12 points the minute it drives off the lot, as House Republicans found when they fell 10 points between 2016 and 2018. So Democrats should ignore current polls showing the generic congressional ballot tied. They should assume they’ve lost a dozen points, which means ceding five Senate and more than 40 House seats if they don’t fight like underdogs and claw some of those lost points back.Story continues below advertisement2. Fight the culture war.There is a reason critical race theory migrated from the dusty shelves of Harvard Law School to the forefront of the Virginia gubernatorial race. Item 1 of the GOP playbook is to highlight divisive social issues and cast Democrats as out-of-touch elitists.Defund the police, chaos at the border, and smash-and-grab crime are coming to a competitive race near you. Democrats cannot just wave them away. They must answer the attacks early and define themselves, lest they be defined. And they must forcefully disassociate with the most extreme far-left proposals and politically toxic slogans on these issues.Story continues below advertisement3. Be like Reagan on the economy.Imagine what a Republican president would call an economy with the highest gross domestic product growth since 1984, the biggest jobs increase in U.S. history, booming wages and a stock market up 25 percent year-over-year. Donald Trump called far less “the greatest economy in the history of the world.”There is a 24-point gap between how positive voters feel about their own finances and how negatively they view the U.S. economy. One reason is inflation. The other is that Republicans denigrate the economy for political reasons, and Democrats live in fear of celebrating if a single voter is unhappy with their economic circumstances.Story continues below advertisementPreceding Democrats’ last midterm thrashings were two notable, unforced legislative errors: the failure of universal health care in 1994 and the defeat of cap-and-trade climate legislation in 2010. The political damage was not because voters desperately wanted what Democrats were selling on health care or the environment. Rather, it was because Democrats looked ineffectual.Democrats have already passed the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, extended the debt ceiling and kept the lights on with government funding. Build Back Better is the final piece of the puzzle. It can change, and it can shrink, but it must pass. Trying counts only when you’re in the minority.Story continues below advertisement207 million Americans are fully vaccinated. 2021 ended with 99 percent of K-12 schools open and in person. In the most toxic Washington of our lifetimes, Democrats passed the biggest bipartisan infrastructure bill since the interstate highway system was funded in the 1950s.We are on our way to universal broadband in rural and urban America. And once Build Back Better passes, we are one step closer to universal prekindergarten, lower prescription drug prices and new health-care cost protections, with no one who makes less than $400,000 paying more taxes.Democrats must sell the historic work they’ve done instead of falling into their habit of lamenting what didn’t get accomplished. Lamentations can wait for 2024, when the natural law of politics will be on their side again. History is not in Democrats’ favor, but if they change their habits, they might change their outcomes.
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