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What election results for New Jersey's Murphy and Virginia's McAuliffe really mean

Democrats may well lose again in 2022. So they might as well go down fighting for regular Americans.
Image: Terry McAuliffe, Phil Murphy
Terry McAuliffe, Phil Murphy.Getty Images/AP

In a sane world, Terry McAuliffe’s loss in Virginia and Gov. Phil Murphy’s near miss in New Jersey would cause an honest examination of what’s working — and what isn’t — for the Democratic Party. McAuliffe is a centrist, corporate-backed Clintonite who lost to a Trumpist Republican while suffering losses among white voters without college degrees. You might think another resounding defeat like this would discourage future McAuliffes from running and silence their consultants and advisers.

You might think another resounding defeat like this would discourage future Terry McAuliffes from running and silence their consultants and advisers.

But we don’t live in a sane world. Instead, establishment pundits, operatives and elected officials have chosen to blame progressives for their losses. They say progressives are to blame for McAuliffe's and Murphy’s woes. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., blamed progressives for holding up President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure package. Anonymous Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration claimed Biden has been “tugged too far to the left” and urged McAuliffe to limit his ambition. Van Jones suggested on CNN that progressives should drop their commitment to passing Biden’s agenda and focus on “small things that let people know you’re on their side.”

But this diagnosis — that Democrats suffered losses among working-class voters because progressives are fighting too hard to pass policies that benefit working people — makes no sense. The problem isn’t that Democrats have done too much for working people, but that we haven’t done enough. And corporate Democrats are the ones standing in the way of these kinds of popular policies. There are many causes for what happened in Virginia and New Jersey, but one thing is clear: There are zero consequences for corporate Democrats and their operatives who lose election after election. Instead of blaming the left, the corporate establishment of the party should look in the mirror.

In Virginia, Democrats cleared the field of historic, exciting, young candidates on behalf of an older, white former politician. At a moment of broad populist anger at the political and economic elite, perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to nominate a wealthy candidate whose investments in the notorious Carlyle Group undermined attacks on his opponent: Carlyle’s former co-CEO who presided over outsourcing.

To be fair, the argument that McAuliffe and Murphy suffered because of the challenges Biden has faced in passing his agenda do have some merit. Generally speaking, presidents often see their approval rates rise when the media praises them for “getting things done” and are punished for failing to pass their agendas. Biden’s falling approval rating probably accounts for some of the voters who voted for Biden but switched to a Republican on Tuesday.

But again, if anyone deserves blame for Biden’s congressional gridlock, it is the corporate lobbyists who convinced Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to gut the most popular parts of the president's agenda. Manchin and Sinema are responsible for holding up Biden’s "Build Back Better" agenda in an effort to remove the tax increases for billionaires and big corporations, cut paid family leave, lower the cost of prescription drugs and expand Medicare to include dental, hearing and vision. If establishment Democrats were actually concerned about the party’s standing with middle- and working-class voters — and non-college white women in particular — they might consider criticizing Manchin and Sinema for fighting so hard against the policies that would directly benefit those voters.

Of course, we don’t know whether a populist candidate who took on Youngkin’s private-equity past would have done better or if Congress passing Build Back Better legislation would have made Biden more popular. But it certainly couldn’t have hurt.

While Tuesday’s results are a stark warning for the party’s midterm elections prospects, an honest interpretation would also recognize Democrats’ uphill battle more generally. Biden’s approval rating has taken a hit due to rising gas prices and the ongoing pandemic — especially slow job growth and the challenges facing parents with school-age children. Improving these numbers before next year’s midterm elections depends much more on dealing with the issues than anything candidates can say. In nearly every midterm election in the modern era, the majority party suffers losses due to what political scientists refer to as “thermostatic” popular opinion. It’s why most political and data scientists think Democrats will have a hard time holding on to the House no matter what.

While Tuesday’s results are a stark warning for the party’s midterm elections prospects, an honest interpretation would also recognize Democrats’ uphill battle more generally.

So what can Democrats do now? If Democrats want to reverse their slide with working people, they must pass policies that benefit working people. Instead of standing on the sidelines, as many members of Congress have done, they must loudly and proudly support the historic strike wave. Instead of putting the blame on progressives who are fighting to pass the entirety of Biden’s agenda, establishment Democrats should go to war against the corporate lobbyists who are helping to block their agenda.

Passing the Build Back Better bill with the most significant investment in green energy in U.S. history, providing universal child care and expanding subsidies for the Affordable Care Act will benefit working people. But if Democrats want to win back voters, they should also more directly confront the billionaires and corporate interests that have limited the bill’s size and scope. Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, ExxonMobil and the Business Roundtable have spent tens of millions of dollars mobilizing against the "Build Back Better" agenda. If Biden wants to pass an FDR-sized piece of legislation, he needs to take an FDR-inspired approach to antagonizing the business interests that oppose his agenda.

What we do know is that more of Terry McAuliffe’s tepid approach to governance and campaigns will not reverse the generation-long slide Democrats have suffered among working-class voters. It was pro-corporate Democrats like Hillary Clinton who broke the party’s historic link with working people and pro-corporate Democrats like Joe Manchin who are now making it very difficult for Congress to pass laws that benefit working people.

After 40 years of rising corporate profits, increasing inequality and falling real wages, working people won’t be convinced by rhetoric alone. Democrats need to produce results. A new, more worker-friendly, populist approach to Democratic Party elections might not be enough to overcome the racially charged polarization tactics of the Trumpist Republican Party. But we know the pro-corporate approach certainly will not. If Democrats are likely to lose in 2022, they might as well go down fighting for regular Americans.