Rapid Response

I’ve made next to no effort to read post-mortem analysis of Tuesday’s elections, and don’t see any reason to start now. What I was hoping for was that Democrats would hold on to New Jersey and Virginia governorships and legislatures, and maybe pick up a contested congressional seat in Ohio (where Republicans have been overperforming ever since they put those new voting machines in for the 2004 election). Had that happened, it would basically say that even if voters are dissatisfied with Democrats they at least recognize that they’d be much worse off with Republicans. As you know, that didn’t happen, although the NJ governorship was held by Democrat Philip Murphy (in something of a nail-biter). The lesson I draw from all of this is that Democrats need to communicate and campaign better. In particular, they need to drive home the point that there is no effective difference between Trump and any other Republican on any ticket anywhere.

No More Mister Nice Blog has written several good posts on just this theme. In particular, see Democrats Need to Develop Rapid Response 2.0. He starts off quoting Greg Sargent on a “lopsided communications imbalance” by which “Youngkin and his allies have pumped . . . raw right-wing sewage directly into the minds of the GOP base, behind the backs of moderate swing voters, via a right-wing media network that has no rival on the Democratic side.” Blogger SM notes:

What Democrats need to do is disrupt the messaging of the right. They need a sense of what’s being said in the right’s propaganda channels and they need to respond to it fast, before the messaging reaches voters in the middle. They need to debunk dishonest allegations and they need to make the dishonesty the story.

The 1992 Bill Clinton campaign was known for a “rapid response” capability that didn’t allow bad news to fester. Democrats need to recognize that Fox News is the Republican Party, and that they need to treat messaging on Fox as if it’s messaging from Republican campaigns. (Because it is.) They need to see propaganda campaigns like this coming and they need to counter such campaigns as fast as they can.

The facile explanation for Democratic losses is Biden’s recent drop in the favorability polls, which crossed negative around August 27. That slide started with the fall of Kabul, which had become inevitable at least since Obama’s “surge” failed to gain any traction in 2009-10, or for many of us since Fall 2001, when GW Bush responded to Osama Bin Laden’s dare and blundered into the “graveyard of empires.” I gave Biden much credit for sticking to his withdrawal schedule, and thought he defended the decision ably (if not as eloquently as one might wish for). But who in the public eye had his back? Republicans enjoyed a purely opportunistic feast of demagoguery at Biden’s expense. Since then the right-wing talk machine has been harping on things like gasoline prices, while the media has been focused on the efforts of two marginal senators to sabotage an important (and if people properly understood it better a potentially very popular) piece of legislation, making Democrats look hapless.

While it may be difficult to get an airing in the fracas-oriented mainstream media, it really shouldn’t be hard for sensible people to make meaningful comparisons Democrats, who are honestly proposing real solutions to critical problems, and Republicans, who offer nothing but complaints and paeans to magical thinking. Even more so between Biden and his Republican predecessor. Last week’s trip to Europe for G20 and COP26 should have been seen as a triumph of statesmanship, in stark contrast to the amateur hour histrionics of Trump’s foreign meetings. The G20 agreement to pursue minimum global taxation of corporations, for instance, wasn’t even on the agenda as long as Trump was president. The pledges on deforestation may not amount to much, but can you even imagine Trump caring a whit?

Trump is so ridiculous and vile he’s like a prophylactic around the mass of the Republican Party (at least those who haven’t made public spectacles of themselves, like Louie Gohmert, Matt Goetz, Marjory Taylor Greene, and Ted Cruz), protecting their reputations from his stain. But for all practical purposes, there is very little difference Trump and the average Republican conservative in Congress. SM has a post on this: The Number of Bad Republicans Is Much Greater Than One. His first piece of evidence is a Twitter thread from Diana Butler Bass (links in post) about “Bad stuff that happened in Virginia the last time we had a GOP governor” (each of these is backed by links to articles):

  • Remember the Virginia ultrasound bill forcing vaginal probes controversy?
  • UVA professors were investigated for teaching climate science.
  • Gov Bob McConnell reinstated Confederate History Month.
  • The GOP worked to subvert every environmental policy in the books.
  • The 2013 candidate for Lt Gov ran a campaign based on Democrats being the Antichrist.

SM concludes:

But this is my ongoing complaint about the Democrats: They’re up against a party of extremists whom much of the country regards as moderate, while Democrats are a mostly moderate party that’s regarded by far too many voters as extreme. Regarding the latter, Democrats like Joe Biden and Kyrsten Sinema, in different ways, send the message, “I’m moderate — I’m not like those Democrats you don’t like,” which got them elected but reinforces the Democrats-as-extremists stereotype. And when Democrats focus on Trump as a uniquely evil figure, that reinforces the belief that most Republicans are fine, decent, responsible right-centrists.

Still, what bothers me isn’t that the Republicans have become the real extremists, but that the ideas that motivate their extremism are so dysfunctional. In simpler times I might offer you a list here, but now it would take a book. They have no idea how the economy works. They have no concern for what unfettered business does to the environment, let alone the climate. They hold all but the rich in contempt, yet are convinced their attitudes will never provoke redress. After all, they figure they got all the guns. Every time you give them a piece of power, they cost us valuable time and often exacerbate the problems.

Still, as disasters go, Tuesday’s elections didn’t do a huge amount of damage. They are a wake up call for Democrats, a warning that we need to work smarter and help each other out more, and take seriously the need to explain to people why we offer hope for the future, and why Republicans don’t. And by the way, the elections did bring some victories. Here in Wichita, three progressives were elected to the city council (a net gain of two). On the other hand, the school board took a step backward, as Republicans organized a partisan slate in a nominally non-partisan election and flipped three (of four) seats, one thanks to a split among better candidates. That promises to be the end of Critical Race Theory in the Wichita Public Schools (not that there was any), but also the end of mask mandates.

The Struggle Over the Veterans Health Administration

There are huge asymmetries between America’s two political parties. One of the most maddening is how quickly Americans forget when Republicans screw things up, which is all the time, and for the simplest of reasons. The one big idea that Republicans have is that they should hobble government, to turn its functions over to private enterprise, and to free business from oversight and regulation. When Republicans prevail, three things inevitably happen: businesses turn predatory, they take greater risks in pursuit of profit, and they dump their wastes and mistakes onto the public. Well, make that four: they concentrate wealth among the already rich, while making a mockery of our belief in justice.

But if that’s so obvious, why do we keep forgiving them? Why give them another chance, as happened in 1994 and 2010, when Republicans reclaimed the House only two years after being swept out of the Presidency? And after Trump’s mob made an even greater mess, why do pundits still expect a Republican resurgence in 2022? In other words, why when Republicans screw up, so many of us trust Democrats even less to fix the mistakes?

There are two ways to look at this question, and both are relevant. On the one hand, few people understand how things actually work, which leaves us vulnerable to half-truths and convenient homilies backed by special interest groups. On the other hand, Republicans have built a relentless propaganda machine that is constantly attacking Democrats, not just for real shortcomings but for all sorts of fantastical crimes that are only rooted in the fevered imaginations of right-wing pundits. Democrats have long been ineffective at countering either of these thrusts. Explaining how things work is too boring, and responding to madness in kind is too disrespectful, so again and again they stand blinded and take the beating. If only they had opponents who were sensible and sincere, but that’s exactly what Republicans aren’t.

If you want a concrete example, took at Suzanne Gordon and Jasper Craven: The VA Is Ripe for Right-Wing Attacks. Here’s How Biden Can Stop Them. In the 1990s under Clinton-appointee Kenneth Kizer, the VHA had become the highest-performing, most cost-effective organization in the sad-but-glitzy universe of American health care, but since 2001 Republicans have been picking it apart — while flooding the system with new casualties — making it easy to air complaints about slow service and other shortcomings. The key sentence here is this:

The right knows how to undermine veterans’ health care while simultaneously winning political points on the negative outcomes their own policies have wrought.

That is, in short, the magic Republican formula: mess things up and blame the Democrats. This overlooks the one great advantage VHA has: it is non-profit, the closest thing the US has to a NHS. It can, in short, dispense with profit measurements and solely pursue health outcomes, with strong confidence that a healthier system will save money in the long run. The problem I see is that VHA is limited to veterans for its patient pool, and the percentage of the American public that serves in its armed forces is small and dwindling. Right now, VHA is having trouble serving veterans in remote areas, because the patients are too few and far between. But the system could grow considerably if we let more people use it. It could, for instance, offer its services like an HMO, at attractive prices (at compared to private insurance). One could transition from its current patient limits by adding other public employees (who, very often, provide more useful services than does the military). Not that I like the idea of limiting it to a subset of the public — least of all to the military caste many Americans like to fetishize. An expanded National Health Service could provide a nice “public option” alternative to the private sector, whose profit-seeking approaches the predatory. An easy path here would be to make VHA an option for Medicaid.

Of course, before any such thing can happen, we have to get past the mental obstacle course Republicans have laid (and Democrats have way too often fallen for). In the 1990s, the VHA proved that capable and conscientious leadership, safe from political corruption, can deliver superior health care services. That is government at work for you, in sharp contrast to politicians who serve a private sector system that is based on market failures and run like an extortion racket. But Republicans will deny that, and blame their own failures on everyone else (like their efforts to crucify public servants like Anthony Fauci). And they seem credible, because who is cynical enough to imagine that Republican intentions are as malign as their results? An increasing number, but not yet enough to definitively reject Republican rhetoric, even among Democratic leader who should know better than anyone what they are facing.

By the way, the “Here’s how Biden can stop them” section is by far the weakest in the article. All they suggest appointing a “talented undersecretary.” That would help, but we need a more fundamental sea change in thinking about what, and whom, government is for.