Under the threat of this darkness, Democrats have a duty to make crystal clear to voters what is at stake in November. In midterm elections especially, Americans must be given a persuasive reason to vote—a task that is much harder for a party that won the White House only two years before. This year voters are apprehensive about inflation and other lingering effects of the pandemic and demoralized that Democrats, with their narrow majorities, have failed to achieve much of what they promised.But the January 6 committee, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the Uvalde school shooting have put stark and frightening issues prominently before the public, and if presented clearly and persistently they have a strong potential to drive voters to the polls—especially younger voters, who were so vital to the Democrats’ midterm gains in 2018, and who now, after Democrats failed to pass their climate agenda, desperately need a reason to turn out. This election must be about safeguarding the country they know and the freedoms and rights they cherish. Democrats from President Biden on down need to present these issues clearly and unapologetically:
If you don’t want a government that can force you to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term—vote! If you don’t want a government that can deny you contraceptives—vote!! If you don’t want a government that can tell you with whom you can make love and whom you can marry—vote!! If you don’t want a government that will do nothing to protect your child from a troubled teenager with an assault rifle—vote!! If you don’t want a government that can ignore the people’s voice at the polling place—vote!! If you don’t want a government that will do nothing about rising temperatures and the danger they pose to all of us—vote!The president is in the strongest position to define this choice, and then to do it again, and again, and again. After the way his predecessor dominated the news cycle, President Biden often seems a vanishingly small figure on the national scene. If Democrats are going to succeed in nationalizing the election, he must become the proud and ubiquitous champion of women and their personal freedom, of the right of all Americans to love and marry whom they choose and to raise children in safety, of their right to vote and see their votes counted. It is not enough for Democrats to pray that the former president will declare his candidacy before November and thereby scare their voters to the polls. President Biden and other leading Democrats need to persuade voters of the threat they face and paint a convincing and forceful picture of how Democrats are going to meet it.
Delivering the message is only the beginning. Democrats must recognize that they have a grave credibility problem. Despite significant accomplishments, they made promises in 2020 that they have not kept. They need to face squarely the fact that for many voters, especially younger ones, Biden’s term—the disorganized flight from Afghanistan to the interminable negotiations over his signature “Build Back Better” bill—has been little more than a debacle. Voters who were drawn to the polls by his promises of dramatic steps to reduce greenhouse gases, to raise taxes on rich corporations and the very well-to-do, and to provide universal child care and two free years of junior college have seen little more than endless talk. One can natter on about the filibuster, but the fact is when it came to many of their domestic priorities, the Democrats could not deliver the support of even the fifty senators their voters gave them. In those cases, the system didn’t fail; the politicians did. Given this record, why should Democrats turn out and vote?It is not enough to respond to this question by drumming up fear about what could happen if they don’t. Having disappointed their voters on so many of their promises, the Democrats must state clearly and specifically not only what they will actually do if they are returned to power but how they will do it. The model for this is Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, which was critical to the Republicans’ historic capture of both houses of Congress in 1994. Democrats need to make an explicit commitment that if they retain control of the House and gain at least two additional willing senators, they will effect a “carve out” of the filibuster that allows their Senate majority to pass bills inscribing in federal law the right to choose to end a pregnancy, to purchase contraception, and to marry whom one chooses. This vow should be announced by the president and repeated by candidates across the country. Democrats should proclaim their intention to cast these as their first votes when the new Congress convenes. It is not difficult to think of other elements that might be added to a Democratic Contract with America: gun safety legislation that closes background check loopholes and sets a minimum age of twenty-one for buying firearms, bills that expand and safeguard voting rights, and of course legislation that confronts climate change and that ensures that every American pays a fair share of taxes. Democrats have never been short of ideas. What they lack now is credibility. Passing even the stripped-down reconciliation bill addressing climate change, prescription drugs, and taxes would have helped enormously in persuading voters to turn out by proving that votes for Democrats really do lead to a more equitable society that confronts existential threats. That in the present emergency and in the shadow of the midterms they could not muster fifty votes to raise taxes on corporations and the very wealthy—a wildly popular measure vital to the entire Democratic program—casts embarrassing doubt on their legitimacy as a working- and middle-class party. It risks hurting turnout among those voters in the Democratic coalition whom they have been struggling the most to attract—the very working-class voters, polls suggest, more concerned with inflation and jobs than the threat to abortion and voting rights.
As I write, it seems that only the prescription drug part of the reconciliation bill is likely to pass. Reducing the costs of prescription drugs, if they accomplish it, will allow Democrats to argue that at least they are beginning to confront the rising cost of living. At the same time they must swallow hard and point to their failures to pass measures on climate change and taxes, immensely frustrating as they are, to reinforce the larger point: to pass their programs and to safeguard Americans’ rights, Democrats need to retain control of the House and to elect more senators. If they do manage to pass other vital legislation before the election—for example, parts of the China competitiveness bill that invest in producing semiconductors here and reforms to protect American democracy that emerge from the January 6 committee—this will reaffirm that Democrats are determined both to produce and protect American jobs and to safeguard a system under threat.Democratic voters must not only fear what might happen if they don’t vote. They must believe that their leaders, once elected, can and will protect the country and its institutions. In the meantime President Biden badly needs to take specific executive actions on climate that show voters genuine urgency and creativity. He also needs to work harder to remind Americans of the jobs his infrastructure bill is creating. In 2020 he campaigned on the promise to make government work. Now he must convince voters again that, if given the tools, he can. During the past months the specter of an increasingly autocratic America has raised its head. Voters who cast their ballots for Democrats must be in no doubt about what they are voting for: the freedom to love and marry whom they wish, the freedom to decide when they want to bear children and to keep those children safe from gun violence—and the certainty that they will go on having a real voice in choosing who leads them. They must be reminded that these rights and freedoms are at risk, that a very different future looms. The most important election of our lifetime is coming. The emergency is upon us. If we are truly to meet it, we must first make bold to say so.
—July 21, 2022