Considering my Twitter profile sports a big blue-wave icon, I feel guilty for what I’m about to say: Democrats are idiots when it comes to messaging.
The Supreme Court has gone rogue. Inflation has made grocery shopping a painful experience. And mass shootings have become routine.
Who’s to blame? Well, former president Donald Trump stacked the Supreme Court with justices who reneged on their promise to respect settled civil rights law. At the height of soaring gas prices, Congressional Republicans voted against a bill to prevent price-gouging by oil companies. And GOP opposition to common sense gun limits has made assault-style weapons easily available to killers as they plan massacres.
Then why am I so angry at Democrats? Putting aside any substantive policy failures, Democrats are painfully feeble at touting their accomplishments and defending themselves against an endless string of GOP attacks. For instance, Democratic leadership has been widely criticized for lending support to far-right candidates in primary elections. What needs to be said is: “Political strategy is not pretty, American Democracy is hanging on by a thread, and we stand a better chance of winning the general election against crazy extremists.” Instead, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered a watered-down defense: “The political decisions that are made out there, are made in furtherance of our winning the election.”
Polite, well-measured comments may carry the day in a law school debate, but they come off as boring political rhetoric that leaves the Democratic base uninspired.
When the Supreme Court clawed back 50 years of women’s right to an abortion, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) — referencing the previously leaked opinion — said the actual decision was “anticlimactic.” We needed fire and brimstone, and a Democratic civil rights icon barely struck a match.
A big part of the problem is that Democratic leaders — like President Biden (age 79), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (71), and House Speaker Pelosi (82) — are old, and the agility required for passionate speech is apparently less available to them. Compare the geriatric guard to Democrats in Congress like Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) or Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), who can not only say the right words but make them compelling.
Beyond that, efforts at bipartisanship by Democrats appear oblivious to the brutal reality that we are in a two-party battle for America’s soul and the other side does not just want to rule us, they want to extinguish us. This miscalculation has left Democrats scared to fully engage in the fight, for fear of appearing too partisan.
After Republicans stole a Supreme Court seat by denying President Obama’s nominee a senate hearing — under the absurd claim that a president should not appoint a justice in the last year of his presidency — the GOP rammed Amy Coney Barrett into a seat on the court just days before the 2020 election. At the conclusion of the confirmation hearing, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised Republican committee chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Feinstein cooed about bipartisanship and hugged Graham — seemingly for a successful GOP heist of the Supreme Court. The move turned my stomach and infuriated other Democrats.
When Republicans falsely claim that Democrats support the murder of post-birth babies, are pedophile “groomers,” and are responsible for school shootings because they respect the separation of church and state, it is demoralizing for Democrats to watch their leaders respond with tepid denials. We want to see a fire in the bellies of those who have been elected to lead the charge against outrageous Congressional Republicans and their Tiki Torch-toting base who want to replace American secularism with Christian nationalism.
A few Democrats have stepped-up and gone on the offensive in a way that many in our party yearn for — one that resonates in the soundbite world of short attention spans and 140-character social media limits. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) is leading the charge. When the Mississippi House speaker said 12-year-old incest victims should not be allowed to terminate their pregnancies, Swalwell tweeted: “This. Is. Who. They. Are. MAGA Republicans want your small children to have government-mandated pregnancies.” And as gas prices began to fall, Swalwell took the opportunity to slam Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for abandoning his constituents last year in the middle of a freezing storm that knocked out Texas’s power grid: “Gas prices are so low Ted Cruz cancelled his flight and drove to Cancun.”
On the state front, when Michigan Democratic state Sen. Mallory McMorrow was falsely accused by a fellow state senator of being a “groomer,” McMorrow made a blistering speech that annihilated her accuser as it went viral with more than 8 million views in 24 hours. And California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, recently launched a TV attack ad that took on Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Republican conservative culture. Democrats and liberal newspapers rejoiced. Good for Newsom, but bad for a party in which someone who is “willing to proactively throw a punch or two” is so unusual, it makes headlines.
Recent weeks have teased a shift in the ever-dull Democratic messaging. The “normally staid” White House Twitter account pounced on Republican members of Congress who complained about Biden’s student debt cancellation, by cataloguing unrepaid PPE loans made to GOP representatives. This sent a jolt of joy to many in the Democratic base who have been calling on their leaders to fight fire with a blow torch, not a water hose.
And in a series of speeches, Biden attacked the MAGA-wing of the Republican Party, referring to them as “semi-fascists” who threaten American Democracy. Clutching their pearls, the faux outrage machine of Fox News claimed that Biden had declared war on half the country, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) demanded Biden apologize. He better not.
It’s not just the Democratic leadership that needs to change if we want a chance at surviving the mid-terms. Democrats foolishly did some of their own pearl-clutching when Hillary Clinton referred to the most extreme part of Donald Trump’s base as “deplorables.” We cannot demand a more aggressive approach from our leaders and then punish them when they comply.
Democrats must stop allowing themselves to be pulled into the GOP guilt trip. It’s a ploy that wounds the Party by turning Democrats against each other. Instead, let’s collectively quote a hungry Oliver Twist, who lifted his empty bowl to the powers that be: “Please Sir, I want some more.”
Michael J. Stern was a federal prosecutor for more than 24 years with the Department of Justice in Detroit and Los Angeles, prosecuting high-profile crimes, including conspiracy cases related to international drug trafficking and organized crime. He has since worked on the indigent defense panel for the federal courts. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelJStern1.