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A day after Republicans won decisive victories in Virginia and came within striking distance of a major upset in New Jersey, both political parties stand at a crossroads.
For Democrats, their time in power on Capitol Hill appears to have an almost definite expiration date with the approaching 2022 midterms a year from now, and so they face questions about whether they can still — and should — pass both a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a larger social spending bill. More broadly, they must grapple with how to win over voters who could not stand former President Donald Trump but don’t seem to like Democrats either.
Meanwhile, Republicans are dealing with an identity crisis of their own: Do Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s victory on Tuesday and the party’s gains in New Jersey offer them a path ahead to more victories without Trump, and if so, how do they get there?
The path to a post-Trump reality is treacherous and uncertain. But it does exist, as made clear by the GOP’s wins this week, said Bill Palatucci, a key New Jersey Republican who is a close adviser to former Gov. Chris Christie.
New Jersey Republican Jack Ciattarelli mounted a far stronger challenge to incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, than had been anticipated. And Democratic state Senate President Steve Sweeney — long one of the most powerful and imposing politicians in New Jersey — was on the verge of being defeated by an unknown Republican candidate: a truck driver named Ed Durr, who spent very little money on the race.
Trump “was not important here,” Palatucci told Yahoo News. “Zero role here.”
Among Republicans who harbor hopes of running for president in 2024, Christie has been most aggressive in challenging the GOP to move on from Trump, and Palatucci predicted on Wednesday that the party would do so.
“We will ultimately move past Trump,” Palatucci said.
But if that happens, it will be a delicate dance, as demonstrated quite well by Youngkin’s candidacy.
"Youngkin’s savvy move was not to embrace Trump but also not to insult Trump or disavow him,” wrote Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson. “He was not about being pro- or anti-Trump. Youngkin was about being not about Trump. Every time he was asked, he said he was just focused on Virginia. He refused to take the bait.”
This is a different approach to the former president than has been taken by outspoken critics such as Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. But it may be that both open confrontation and a more conciliatory strategy are both needed to push Trump aside while retaining the voters he attracted to the GOP.
And it may also be the case that if the Republican Party cannot act decisively in some way to choose someone as its standard bearer in 2024 other than Trump, he will fill the vacuum.
Most of the Republican Party has either gone silent in the face of Trump’s continued lies about the 2020 election, or are actively supporting the same disproven conspiracy theories that led thousands of Trump supporters to violently assault the Capitol earlier this year in an attempt to overturn an election.
If the GOP cannot figure out a way beyond Trump, it will be wedded to his mercurial temperament and distaste for democracy. And it will also be stuck with a leader who lost the popular vote in a landslide last year while other Republicans made gains. Trump remains toxic in states like Virginia, which he lost by 10 points last November, so if the GOP is interested in repeating Youngkin’s success nationally, it will likely have to keep Trump at arm’s length.
As for Democrats, they woke up Wednesday staring into a new round of second-guessing about their agenda on Capitol Hill. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a former Virginia governor himself, said that his party had cost Democrat Terry McAuliffe the election by not passing a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and a $1.75 trillion social spending bill last month.
“Congressional Dems hurt Terry McAuliffe. I’m going to be blunt,” Kaine said. “If we had been able to deliver infrastructure and reconciliation in mid-October, he could have sold universal pre-K, affordable child care, infrastructure, creating jobs.”
Both bills have been stalled for months amid Democratic infighting. The infrastructure bill breezed through the Senate over the summer with 19 Republican votes and provides money for roads, bridges, waterways and expanded broadband internet access, among other priorities. But it has so far been unable to pass the House, where progressive Democrats are demanding a deal be reached first on a larger spending bill but haven’t been able to overcome objections from moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona.
Kaine, the party’s 2016 vice presidential candidate, called for Democrats to forge ahead and pass both bills. “Democrats control both houses and they have to act like it, have to be disciplined, have to get results. Our inability to come together and get a result hurt [McAuliffe],” he said.
Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne spoke for many on the left when he called for the Democrats to abolish or reform the filibuster to push through their spending and infrastructure bills, but also to pass sweeping changes to elections laws. “Democrats cannot allow the filibuster to block action on voting rights, now a more urgent cause than ever,” he wrote.
But others said that Democrats — and progressives in particular — misread the 2020 election results by pushing for maximalist legislation such as the reconciliation package rather than delivering a solid win earlier this summer with the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“While there are many worthwhile elements in [Democrats’] social spending package, things that would be beneficial to many, that doesn’t mean that voters last November were authorizing it,” said pollster Charlie Cook.
Manchin, who represents a state Trump won by nearly 40 points in 2020, has been the main obstacle to progressive attempts to push through a social spending bill. And on Wednesday he reiterated that he was not comfortable with some of the spending in the package, raising further doubts about whether Democrats can get it done anytime soon.
“If we’re going to do something, let’s take time to do it right,” Manchin said Wednesday. “We’re talking about revamping the entire tax code. That’s mammoth. We’ve had no hearings.” He said people were “scared to death” of these large changes.
“We’re talking about expanding something we can’t even pay for now,” he said of proposals to expand Medicare.
Democrats also engaged in some self-examination on Wednesday, particularly when it came to their rhetoric around cultural issues.
“I think that Democrats are coming across in ways that we don’t recognize, that are annoying and offensive and seem out of touch, in ways that I don’t think show up in our feeds, when we’re looking at our kind of echo chamber,” Van Jones, a former Obama administration official, said on CNN.
Lis Smith, a prominent Democratic campaign consultant and communications expert, agreed with Jones and tweeted, “I would add condescending as well.”
Incoming New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat who won the party primary this summer over more progressive candidates and drew large support from working-class, nonwhite parts of the city, put it succinctly: “Government is not supposed to preach to its citizenry, it’s supposed to provide,” Adams said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
John Halpin and Peter Juul, both analysts at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, wrote that a renewed push for the twin bills in Congress does not have to be in tension with a more relatable Democratic Party that reaches out to moderate Republicans and the working-class voters who have joined the GOP in recent years.
They called for Democrats to pass both bills. But they also said Democrats need to approach policy and political disagreements and debates with more modesty, humility and humanity.
“Don’t dismiss voters’ fears. Recognize that most Democrats are normal working- and middle-class voters, not leftists. Reach out beyond the base with a message of equal rights and dignity for all people — centered on core concerns around jobs, the economy, and health care wrapped in patriotic values,” they wrote.