The victory of smooth-talkin' Glenn Youngkin over Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday has Democrats wringing their hands and looking under the couch cushions for excuses. After all, the entire Republican Party and anyone running under its banner should have been deeply wounded by now. They remain, after all, the party of Donald Trump, the single most unpopular political figure in our time. They were the party in charge when the pandemic hit and took 400,000 lives. They are the party that has pushed misinformation about COVID for nearly two years, including loud and repeated lies about vaccines and mask-wearing, causing countless additional deaths. They are the party that has persistently countenanced an attempted coup after the last election and spread the corrosive lie that Trump didn't actually lose.
Republicans should be so knocked back on their heels that they still can't manage to get up, and yet this blow-dried "businessman" running on a platform of transparent lies was able to win the governorship of Virginia. Why? Was it the Democrats in Congress and their failure to pass two incredibly popular bills before Election Day? Was it because McAuliffe carried the baggage of reminding Virginia voters of the Clintons and ran a boring, clueless, inept campaign? Or was his loss simply the predictable product of off-year politics and the bad luck of being the party in power in the White House?
Pundits are ganging up all these reasons and coming up with even more, but I think it's easy to get if you consider a political fact of life, for which Democrats have failed to account for decades. Democrats don't get to choose the issues Republicans run on. There may be many reasons Democrats did so poorly in Virginia on Tuesday, voter turnout among them, but there's one reason Youngkin took the win. He did what Republicans have gotten away with for decades. With his harping on critical race theory (CRT), he practiced dog-whistle politics with a wave and a smile.
He was also the beneficiary of Democrats selling Trump short for the umpteenth time. He's a pumpkin-skinned buffoon and a contemptible fascist asshole, but he's a crafty politician. In case you haven't noticed, Trump's new strategy is to continue to feed red meat to his base at his rallies, which may as well be taking place under glass domes as far as non-Fox News America is concerned, while quietly not saying anything bad about other Republicans — other than Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, that is. Those who simply abide by the cardinal rule of not talking trash about Trump get a pass.
Call it the wink-and-a-nod strategy. Trump didn't have to loudly endorse Youngkin because, just as everybody knew that "Let's go Brandon" meant "Fuck Joe Biden," Virginia Republicans knew that Trump's apparent distance from Youngkin meant that they should vote for him.
Youngkin picked up critical race theory and ran with it like a fumbled football. Every time he opened his mouth and those words came out, it was like Richard Nixon's dark warnings about "inner cities" or Ronald Reagan's imagined "welfare queens." Virginia Republicans could hear a dog-whistle like CRT a mile off, and it left independents free to embrace it as a serious issue without bothering to learn what it meant. Republicans knew what Youngkin was saying without him coming out and saying it: I'm going to keep "them" in their place for you.
It was classic modern Republican politics: racism without racist invective, Trumpism with a wink. Democrats are going to run into these smiling-faced Republicans with their shirt sleeves rolled up again and again as we get closer to the 2022 midterms. They're going to camouflage their insurrectionist beliefs with fleece vests and suburban mom-friendly pablum, and Democrats had better be ready for them. But what do you do about the Republican lies about critical race theory?
Democrats have to take away Republican slogans before they can come up with them. Biden's slogan, if he runs in 2024, should be "Joe Biden: President of the Greatest Country in the World." Congressional Democrats and others should run on "Protect Our Children." Democrats have got to learn to play fill-in-the-blanks politics. We can understand that "protect our children" means teach them the truth about racism and slavery, but please! Leave that out of the slogan. Let voters decide what "protect our children" means. Youngkin got away with his bullshit about CRT by lying about it and by letting his voters fill in the blanks. Same with his silence about "stop the steal." He didn't have to praise Trump out loud to let voters know he's on his side. They filled in the blanks for him.
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What does "protect our children" really mean? Well, what did "Make America Great Again" mean? Trump let his voters fill in the blanks, and Democrats should let voters fill in the blanks when they say "protect our children." What's there to argue about with that slogan? Don't make the mistake of trying to combat the lies about CRT — for example, by saying that it portrays accurately America's history with slavery and race and besides, it isn't taught in schools anyway. Don't argue it, finesse it.
The Republican Party isn't a political party anymore. It's a safe deposit box filled with grievance and anger and hate. But because the Republican Party is the only other party on the ballot and their candidates — especially when they're blown-dry and fleece-clad — present independent voters with a place to register their frustration and impatience (see the NBC News poll finding that 71 percent think America is "on the wrong track"), and express their annoyance with "divisive" and "negative" politics. Don't bother pointing out who is actually being divisive and negative. Accept that in this political climate, facts like that don't matter. Independents need a place to use their votes to tell the party in power what they think, and Republicans, bless their black little hearts, are it.
Democrats don't have to worry about their own voters, other than turning them out. But Democrats have to become the place where they can vote for something. It's been said again and again that all the separate elements of the Build Back Better bill are very popular with voters. Polling shows overwhelming support for some of it. So take those elements everybody loves and shout them from the rooftops. You want lower middle-class taxes? That's us! You want free universal pre-K (read: child care for many parents)? Here we are! You want good roads and bridges that don't fall down? We've got them right here!
Republicans are going to show their true stripes when the infrastructure bill finally comes up for a vote in the House. It will be a big surprise if more than a dozen vote for it. So clobber them with it. How can they be the party of blue-collar workers — a big talking point for Republicans, when they're not cutting taxes on billionaires — when they're against the biggest blue-collar jobs bill since the Interstate Highway Act?
Democrats have to learn to be for the stuff voters like — and to finesse the rest of it. If Youngkin could run a campaign by finessing his stand on "stop the steal" and Donald Trump's attempted coup, Democrats can finesse CRT.
Don't argue with provable lies — nobody wants to hear your proof. Don't pick at Trump like he's an issue you can run on. He's a scab that won't come off, and he doesn't bleed. Come up with slogans that take a positive stand. Tell voters who you are and what you stand for. They'll fill in the blanks.
More on the Democrats' angst and the Virginia debacle: