How Do Democrats Recover From This?

Here are five ways in which they could salvage their election chances.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the House floor
Anna Moneymaker / Getty

Every Democratic activist, strategist, and lawmaker in America has spent at least a brief moment this fall staring at the ceiling in desperation, probably thinking to him- or herself: Something’s gotta give.

Democrats were already facing an inconvenient truth going into next year’s elections: The incumbent president’s party usually gets smoked in the midterms. But they keep getting more bad news. The first test of their post-Trump coalition, in Virginia and New Jersey last month, was a major disappointment for the party. Joe Biden has become a deeply unpopular president. His Build Back Better legislation appears to be taking its final, ragged breaths. Gas and grocery prices are rising faster than people’s wages, and a COVID variant that no one can pronounce is poised to set off a new winter wave.

If these trends continue, Republicans will almost certainly regain control of the House—and maybe even the Senate—next year, and be well on their way to making Biden a one-term president. But circumstances can change quickly in politics. Democrats, who command the White House and both chambers of Congress, won’t face voters for another 11 months. What can they do to turn their fortunes around? I asked seven Democratic activists and strategists for their best ideas. Their comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

1. Pass some version of Build Back Better after the holidays.

Lanae Erickson, senior vice president of policy at the centrist think tank Third Way:

Just pass something. We can still negotiate what that something is. We need to pass something that is significant, that we can call Build Back Better and then go and sell. The American people don’t know what’s in it right now anyway, so then we can redefine it.

The fact that every single frontliner came out yesterday and was like, “No, we’re doing this,” tells you something. They know we are toast if we don’t get this done. Biden’s approval rating is the lowest it’s been today since he got inaugurated. That is not gonna rise if we don’t pass this bill. So there is a political and substantive necessity to make it happen. I think that will prevail upon Joe Manchin. He’s just being ornery. I just think he’s sometimes unpredictable and we’re going to have to stick through the roller coaster of his emotions and just keep coming back. I think he’s going to come back to the table after the holidays, and we’re going to get something done. It’s a hiccup and every single time we pass big legislation there are at least five moments where it seems like it’s dead before it’s not.

Unlike other issues, this bill is completely scalable and severable, so we’re going to be able to get there. You can separate every provision of this bill, so whatever the problematic ones are, we’ll figure it out. I think there is going to be something in the bill on each of [these] items: a middle-class tax cut, something to reduce costs, and something to create jobs and bring supply chains home. We have to show that we’re focused on issues voters care about, mainly the economy and inflation.

An election year makes this easier because the people who have to run want something to sell; they’re pressuring very hard to get it done so they have something to run on

2. President Biden should enforce strict message discipline—and send the right messengers around the country.

James Carville, Democratic consultant and former campaign strategist for President Bill Clinton:

First of all, 2021 is the greatest story never told. In terms of job creation, in terms of hourly employees having some power over their lives, it’s been a remarkable year. We haven’t told anybody. I would have ruthless, aggressive, and disciplined messaging. I would get out front of this crime thing pronto, like now. Why is there not an FBI strike force dispatched to California to deal with this smash-and-grab stuff?

The White House has got to put people out there, plant [stories], do everything you can do, just have a really ruthless, disciplined message operation. The fact that people in this country believe that nothing is happening in Washington, that it’s hopelessly gridlocked—it’s just not true. I would heap a ton of blame on the press, but I gotta heap a ton of blame on the Democrats because we’re just not telling our story. I’d start framing messaging around: We’re not going back to insurrections and Clorox and stock buybacks, which the previous Republican rule was known for. It’d be very simple, hard-hitting, and direct. We don’t have anything to apologize for!

When Lauren Boebert opens her mouth, go [talk about] the story of how she met her husband. Every time Jim Jordan opens his mouth, read the list of athletes that said he knew that major molestation was going on and said nothing.

You know what counts? A call from the White House. Nobody wants a call from the White House telling them they missed the ball last night on television; I don’t care who you are! I’m finally getting some talking points [for TV appearances], so I’m improving. I had never gotten anything like that before. They’ve got some terrific communicators in that administration; Mitch Landrieu ought to be on every Sunday morning. Jennifer Granholm, Gina Raimondo. They have communicators—and good ones! Use them! You get these people out in the frickin’ country. If I was the president, I’d say, “There are plenty of people that can do the paperwork; get your ass out there in the country and start doing ceremonies.”

3. Use the next year to do some really big stuff.

Briahna Joy Gray, progressive political commentator and former press secretary for Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign:

Donald Trump postponed student loan debt for 44 million Americans. It will be Biden who is responsible for turning people’s student debt payments back on. And this is all coming up on an election year! These are choices. Joe Biden at the very least could just leave the status quo in place. Why would he choose, in an election year, to send [that] email to 44 million Americans in their Gmail inbox? This is not an elite issue; 44 million is a huge number, and especially for Democrats, who rely on college-educated voters. You couldn’t design a bigger mess!

There are a number of executive orders [Biden] could do that would materially affect Americans. The administration’s job, first and foremost, is to deliver to the American people, whether or not it helps [Democrats] in an election. On a moral basis, they need to be working harder than ever to do the right thing. If it means there’s not a bloodbath in the fall, and that the midterm election isn’t a red wedding, then that’s the cherry on top.

Rebecca Katz, founder of the progressive political-consulting firm New Deal Strategies:

They keep saying some version [of Build Back Better] might pass. But if [for example] you take out family leave and the child tax credit and climate, then what you have left is what you campaign on? Those aren’t the popular things, first of all, and those aren’t the things that are going to save our planet! We are in a race against time. It is urgent that we do important climate legislation right now. We have 11 months to do very big things. What are we waiting for? They should get rid of the filibuster, and then pass everything they were going to pass, from voting rights and democracy reform to the child tax credit. The list is pretty long.

A lot of us were saying [a year ago], “Let’s get rid of the filibuster and let’s get to work.” And now it’s gonna be January of ’22! Yes, things are much better because Democrats are in power and big things have happened, like the American Rescue Plan and the infrastructure bill. But if that’s all Democrats get done in the next decade … We’ve gotta get serious about passing big things.

I don’t think party leadership or the White House has really done a good job of the inside game. And millions of Americans are going to suffer unless we can come up with some solutions ASAP. We should stop taking options off the table and start figuring out how we’re going to help.

4. Prioritize democracy reform.

Antjuan Seawright, founder and CEO of the Democratic consulting firm Blueprint Strategy:

For the sake of democracy, and protecting the long-term investments this party needs, we’re going to have to figure out a way to do something with voting rights. We cannot win if we do not figure out how to have free and fair access to the ballot box. The suffocation of our voices, the base vote at the ballot box, could lead to a quick political death for us if we’re not careful. Most Black voters would see it as an act of political malpractice if we do not do anything around voting rights.

I think there’s a way to do both [voting reform and pass something like BBB]. But if I had to choose [one priority] today, I’d say voting rights. That could lead to more votes in the U.S. Senate, protecting and expanding the majority in the House, which could make BBB a little easier to get across the finish line. I’d say, “It takes two to make a thing go right.” Or, as our grandparents would tell us, “It takes two wings to fly a plane.”

5. Go after voters on the sidelines—and win back Latinos.

Stephanie Valencia, co-founder of the polling firm Equis Research:

Joe Biden was able to build a unique coalition of anti-Trump voters in 2020 that he will likely not be able to replicate in 2022 or 2024. Democrats need to look at where they’re going to find new voters, and Latinos are the place to look. We were the swingiest part of the electorate in 2020, we are driving growth of the population, and like 50 percent of eligible Latino voters still sat on the sidelines in 2020. Democrats have to reestablish their brand with Latino voters around, who is the party for workers and working-class families? Who is the party fighting for their livelihood? And who is helping to fight for the American dream?

The message is just as important as where they’re disseminating that message. Seventy percent of Hispanic Americans are getting their information from YouTube. One of the most successful ads the Trump campaign had in 2020 was an ad from a UFC fighter endorsing Trump. His message was that Democrats took Latinos for granted. That video has 34 million views. We have to think about platforms like YouTube and organic messengers that Latinos are consuming every day. Who is the progressive Joe Rogan?

Chuck Rocha, president of the progressive consulting firm Solidarity Strategies and senior adviser to Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign:

We continue to do the same shit over and over again and hope for a different result. We’ve micro-targeted ourselves down to a small universe that we determine is a persuadable universe. We leave so many people out of the equation. What Trump and the Republicans have done is opened up the spigot on the fire hose so they’re talking to a plethora of people who normally don’t get any communication from any party. They used to not spend the money on white, working-class union guys or on Spanish-language ads for Latinos. Now more and more Latinos are voting more and more Republican, because Republicans are talking to them. You can have the best message in the world, but if you ain’t talking to enough people, it don’t fuckin’ matter.

The Latino vote is going to determine who has the majority in both chambers. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee have made moves to correct the problem with the Latino and Black voting base. They’ve hired a ton of Black and Latino senior staffers and operatives to help fix the problem at the national level. But the candidates in the field have hired the same white campaign managers.

You open up and do something different, which means start early. Expand the target to not just prime voters but to big swaths of people who have sporadic voting histories, and a ton of newly registered people. You need to have Latino consultants and people in leadership making culturally competent decisions around creative materials.

These approaches aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. But the fact that so many party thinkers are advocating such a range of strategies ahead of the midterms just underscores the bleak reality facing Democrats: The next 11 months are going to be rough for them.