OPINION: The party faces a midterm blowout if they keep following the strategy of promoting lackluster and stale moderate candidates at the expense of progressive Black and brown candidates.
As Republicans celebrated the end of abortion rights, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi led Democrats in the singing of “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. Other than fundraising off the Supreme Court decision and telling people to vote harder, the Democrats seem to lack both a short-term and long-term strategy.
As one person recently tweeted, “My roommate described Republicans as the mass shooter and Democrats as Uvalde cops, and I can’t get it out of my head.”
Democratic Party leadership is weak, out of touch and not up to the job at a crisis moment in America. The Democrats need new leadership, and establishment Democrats are working hard—but not against the Republicans who are taking away our rights. Democratic Party leadership seeks bipartisanship with white nationalists and works overtime to undermine progressive Black candidates and destroy other dynamic candidates of color the party needs to survive and thrive.
Democrats face a midterm blowout if they fail to change course and channel the rage of their base over the loss of abortion rights, voting rights and other issues. Meanwhile, the party is protecting lackluster, stale and sometimes corrupt moderates at the expense of progressive Black and brown candidates. Democrats are not reading the room, and it shows.
Just a few days after the leak of the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning the right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, Speaker Pelosi and Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn campaigned for Henry Cuellar. Cuellar is a pro-NRA, anti-abortion Texas lawmaker whose home was raided by the FBI and is under Department of Justice investigation for corruption, and who barely beat his primary challenger, Jessica Cisneros—a young progressive Latinx lawyer.
As Nina Turner tweeted, “Henry Cuellar was one of three Dems who voted against banning high-capacity magazines…Democratic leadership went out of their way to campaign for him…Shameful.”
Journalist Akela Lacy reported in The Intercept that other key members of the Democratic leadership, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) supported Cuellar. “We’re watching the erosion of our fundamental freedoms in this country. This isn’t a drill,” Cisneros told Lacy, calling Democratic leadership supporting Cuellar an example of cognitive dissonance. “Urgency is important, and Democrats need to pull out all the stops to fight for us.”
Clyburn is a powerful lawmaker who helped Biden win the presidency, yet whose district in South Carolina is one of the poorest in America. If “we are going to run on Medicare for all, defund the police, socialized medicine, we’re not going to win,” said Clyburn, who reportedly received over $1 million from the pharmaceutical lobby over a decade—far outpacing his colleagues.
In an interview with the San Antonio Report, Clyburn downplayed the significance of abortion with the Democratic base. “Does this issue carry more weight than voting [rights]? I don’t think so,” Clyburn said. “I think restoring the Voting Rights Act is a much weightier issue than this.” Even after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturning Roe v. Wade weeks later, Clyburn called the decision “anticlimactic.”
Meanwhile, oil companies, tech execs, pro-Israel lobbyists, Trump supporters and others who have not helped the Black community have poured money into PACs to beat progressive Democrats, particularly Black women and other women of color, in favor of more moderate, pliable and corporate-friendly candidates.
For example, super PACs funded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC have relied on racist and sexist ads with white nationalist rhetoric to attack progressive women candidates of color and progressive Jewish candidates. AIPAC—which has supported dozens of Republican lawmakers who deny Biden won the 2020 election—has spent millions against Summer Lee in Pennsylvania, Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, Jamaal Bowman in New York, Nina Turner, Jessica Cisneros and other progressive candidates who support Palestinian human rights.
As establishment Democrats and their funders spend time and resources neutralizing progressive Black candidates and members of “The Squad,” they promote bipartisanship with Christian fascists who worship a white Jesus wearing a red MAGA hat, with an AR-15 rifle in one hand and a hangman’s noose in the other. The GOP faithful wake up each day thinking of new ways to destroy multiracial democracy.
Does the Democratic Party have a plan to restore voting rights, give women their rights back, rein in the Supreme Court and possibly impeach some justices, including the several who lied under oath and the one whose wife tried to overthrow the government? “We are witnessing a judicial coup in process,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on the unfolding constitutional crisis. “If the President and Congress do not restrain the Court now, the Court is signaling they will come for the Presidential election next.”
What about expelling the insurrectionists who still work in the Capitol? At the last minute, Biden supports removing the Senate filibuster to codify Roe v. Wade, but what’s the strategy? Will he apply the Johnson treatment—named after Lyndon B. Johnson and his tactics to persuade lawmakers to pass civil rights legislation—and strongarm stubborn and corrupt senators who are holding us hostage such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema?
Democrats are in a war and don’t realize it. They are scared to take any bold action that will protect and energize their base, for fear of losing Republican voters they’ll never get, or angering a GOP that must never hold office again because they almost seized power by violence and would never leave office if they ever regain power. And unlike Republicans, Dems do not fear their base of Black and brown voters, poor and low-income voters and others, and perhaps that’s part of the problem.
Scared of their own shadow, Democrats are afraid to wield power when they control the White House, the House and Senate, while Republicans fight for what they want with absurd and unpopular policies and minority support.
Pelosi said, “this country needs a strong Republican Party, and we do, not a cult, but a strong Republican Party.” What Democrats steering a sinking ship fail to understand is the country needs a Republican Party that is no more, and maybe even a reformed, multiparty system that is responsive to the needs of the people.
Voting is a crucial part of the answer, but voting in a new generation of political representatives that is bold, responsive and accountable, and not acting as if we live in the 1970s or 1980s. The complacent “gerontocratic leadership”—as Jamelle Bouie described the Democratic establishment in the New York Times—must make way for folks with a sense of urgency and resolve, and a plan.
Things must change, and either the Democratic Party doesn’t know what it is doing, or even worse, it does. In any case, it isn’t working. During the Obama years, Democrats lost over 1,000 state and federal legislative seats. The strategy of promoting lackluster, milquetoast, bought and often white moderate politicians at the expense of younger and inspiring candidates of color who represent our interests is a problem. And the Democrats’ deer in the headlights approach during a moment of existential crisis is a bad look.
David A. Love is a journalist and commentator who writes investigative stories and op-eds on a variety of issues, including politics, social justice, human rights, race, criminal justice and inequality. Love is also an instructor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, where he trains students in a social justice journalism lab. In addition to his journalism career, Love has worked as an advocate and leader in the nonprofit sector, served as a legislative aide, and as a law clerk to two federal judges. He holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He also completed the Joint Programme in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. His portfolio website is davidalove.com.
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