COMMENTARY

How in God's name are the Democrats still losing — even after Jan. 6 hearings and Roe?

Headlines of the last two months should give Democrats a fighting chance in the midterms. Do they know how to win?

Published July 21, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer | Pro-Choice protest in front of the Supreme Court (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer | Pro-Choice protest in front of the Supreme Court (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

It's going to be a long, hot summer — and I'm not just talking about the weather.

Take a handful of hallucinogens, sedatives and edibles, wash them down with a healthy amount of your favorite liquor during a backyard barbecue with people you love, some you barely know and others you can't stand, and you'll approximate the political climate in the United States today on the eve of the midterm elections.

The summer of 2022 is hot and furious. We are dealing with a world literally on fire due to climate change. We are dealing with a world metaphorically on fire with a continuing war in Ukraine. We are dealing with monkeypox, a continuing pandemic, haters, baiters, ravenous idiots, seditionists, misogynists, racists, pedophiles, gun-toting good Samaritans, mass shootings, religious zealots, the Jan. 6 hearings, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump and infrastructure problems. In the words of Hedley Lamarr: "cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists."

Gee, "Blazing Saddles" seems a little dated, doesn't it? Or, perhaps more to the point, our culture has irrevocably changed and that change is readily apparent in our pop culture. Gone is the era dominated by "Happy Days." That's been replaced by "Stranger Things." Gone are the days of "Blazing Saddles." Say hello to the days of "Hacks." See? Great comedy is still being done.

Anyway, life as we know it on the planet is a mess, and if you're hoping to get it cleaned up any time soon, it's obvious we have to take a hint from Bertrand Russell, who famously said in a 1959 interview that "if we are to live together and not to die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet." 

Furthermore, to succeed we must be guided by the facts, and what those facts bear out as opposed to what we wish to believe. Look only and solely at the facts. Love is wise. Hatred is foolish. At least according to Russell, the author of "Why I Am Not a Christian." Today he might face criminal charges for that essay in certain geographic locales in this country and others.

Those American locales are the same ones H.L. Mencken described as harboring devotees of William Jennings Bryan, in some ways the early 20th-century version of Donald Trump. Mencken described Bryan as a man who "liked people who sweated freely, and were not debauched by the refinements of the toilet." The only difference today is that Trump doesn't actually like those people, but will get their votes as he also sells them  commemorative towels, MAGA hats, T-shirts and other swag.


Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.


Today's Republican Party is thus reduced to a cartoon caricature of itself. Most of those capable of cogent thought have long fled. Only a few brave or foolish souls hoping for the "good ol' days" of the Grand Old Party yet remain. As a former Republican strategist told me, "I didn't leave the party. The party left me. It has no agenda, just rage and no leader — just Donald Trump. There is no goal in mind other than wielding power against anyone the party deems as an enemy."  

Hey, he said it. I just agree.

The current GOP implosion is the single most significant event in the modern political arena. As it further condenses into a political black hole, the party's dwindling numbers continue to find new basements to raid in a never-ending, unethical quest for total power. The rats have long fled the sinking ship. All that remains are the leeches.  

With that in mind, you'd think the Democrats would be killing it going into the midterms. But most pundits, many Democratic strategists, members of Congress and some privately at the White House think otherwise. At best, some of these people believe the Democrats could hold on to the Senate while losing the House. The worst case scenario? Democrats lose both the House and the Senate while being treed by an angry Kodiak bear fleeing a catastrophic climate-induced wildfire. 

Only the recent reversal of Roe v. Wade, a 50-year-old precedent recognizing a fundamental constitutional right, may have given the Democrats a fighting chance to hold onto both houses of Congress. And now, secretly, every Democrat and many former Republicans have felt the spark of a New Hope: the possibility of  increasing the Democratic majority in the Senate enough to eliminate the filibuster rule. Why the sudden change of mood? It isn't exactly the plans to the Death Star.

The Roe v. Wade debacle threatens to produce a galvanized voting bloc of women from across the socioeconomic spectrum that could make such an outcome possible.

If that happens, it won't be the first time women of all colors have had to clean up a problem caused by a bunch of self-indulgent men.

Suddenly, every Democrat feels a New Hope: the possibility of increasing the Senate majority enough to eliminate the filibuster. If that happens, it'll be a galvanized voting bloc of women that makes it so.

But the Democrats have to overcome their natural desire to eat their own or snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. That is the party's continuing curse. In this environment, the zero-sum game of politics, oddly enough conjured up by the shriveled mind of onetime GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, holds sway in certain factions of the Democratic Party. "My way or the highway" isn't just a rant from a stifling parent. It is a battle cry among some Democrats — and among all Republicans. It makes building a consensus increasingly difficult.

"I spent most of my career in the federal government, and I'm very practical about what can get done even on the best days," Democratic strategist Julie Zebrak explained. "I do think Democrats putting forth candidates who create false expectations and who have views that aren't realistic is a problem. For the midterms, we need to put forth candidates who can beat the Republicans, and I'm not sure that's always who we chose."

Each party used to understand that concept. Today, it is anathema to true believers everywhere. But the real problem, according to strategists on both sides of the aisle, is renewed voter apathy. People are tired of Trump. People are tired of Biden. People are tired of broken promises and unattainable goals. "If they become frustrated and don't turn out to vote, everyone loses," Zebrak warned.  

Fifty years after women got the right to vote, Roe v. Wade solidified a basic constitutional right for all women. Fifty years later, it was lost. What if 50 years after women got the right to vote, they then lost that right? Can anyone seriously imagine that? Unfortunately, today you can. So, there is no doubt a great deal of frustration both with politics and in politics today.

The bright spot for the Democrats, the non-Trump Republicans and the American people has been the Jan. 6 hearings — which will wrap up (at least for now) in primetime splendor on Thursday night. The messaging coming from these hearings has been clear and concise. Those who engineered its presentation have made sure it is a fair and factual representation of the ongoing coup conducted by Donald Trump, which still threatens this country. It has been precedent-setting. It's been enlightening, frightening and overwhelming. Part of that is due to how these hearings have been produced.

If the Democrats can learn from the hearings and apply those lessons in messaging to the campaigns for the midterms — while remembering to pick candidates who can actually win a general election (two really big ifs) — the Democrats might thrive this fall. Might. 

But cutting through the clatter in a typical news day remains a tool the Democrats don't readily have available. Issues? Ideas? Stances? Those they have in abundance. But only the Republicans have a handle on how to energize their base, through fear and nostalgia for a time that never really existed. That cuts through everything. You don't have to actually like a Republican. Hell, apparently few people really do — even those who vote for them. The Republicans are just really good at scaring the shit out of a large number of American voters, while placing eternal blame on the Democrats.  

Meanwhile, the public is overwrought, with all the worries of a Mad magazine parody written by Stephen King. Yeah, it's good viewing, and better reading, but it's a tough way to spend your day.

After the Jan. 6 hearings close, and following the midterm elections, the course for this country will be set, perhaps for a generation to come.

We'd all better make sure it's a float trip we can take together.


By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East, and is the author of seven books, including "Free the Press," due out this fall.

MORE FROM Brian Karem


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Democrats Donald Trump Elections Jan. 6 Committee Midterms Republicans Roe V. Wade