Democrats: Time for Optimism and Courage
It's been a big policy week in Bidenland. The issue task force the Biden campaign set up in conjunction with Team Bernie released its 110-page report with lots of praise from Bernie. A new economic proposal that Biden credited Elizabeth Warren and unions with helping him develop promised major progressive reforms in procurement and new investments in manufacturing. Progressives and Democrats should feel cheered by these bold new policy ideas, and have optimism about a Biden presidency.
Turning to the topic of optimism about the election, everyone is well aware that Democratic polling also continues to look very good. If the election were held today (and most people were able to vote safely, which is not a sure thing at all), Biden would win an Electoral College landslide, and we would take back the Senate and pick up at least a dozen seats in the House.
Is that a reason for Democrats to feel cocky? Absolutely not. The 2016 election nightmare showed us what being cocky can cost us. I always take the attitude that arrogance and overconfidence are the most deadly sins in politics, to be avoided at all costs. Anything can happen at any time to change the dynamics, and we know that the swing states in the Electoral College are swing for a reason: they are never easy to win. Personally, I'm joining with my partners at Democracy Partners to fundraise for the Wisconsin Democratic Party right now, and have helped out with two big fundraisers for Biden, the DNC, and state parties. Having dealt with the overconfidence over Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin from the Clinton team while at the DNC in 2016, I will do everything I can possibly do to help lock down victories in those key swing states.
But I also want to say this very strongly: pushing back against overconfidence is not the same thing as playing it safe. The great advantage of being ahead is that we can expand the map, that we can push the Republicans back on their heels in more places. Playing this too conservatively is actually more dangerous than expanding the map, because if you have a relatively narrow pathway to 270 or a Democratic majority in the Senate, and something goes south in a couple of the key states you are targeting, you are screwed.
A couple of stories from past presidential campaigns.
I was on the targeting committee for the Clinton campaign back in 1992. We were ahead throughout the race, which allowed us to expand the map. One of our most important decisions was to spend a little money in Texas several weeks out. Because the polls showed we were only a few points down, and because Ann Richards had won the governorship two years before, the Bush team got very nervous about losing President Bush's home state. My memory is that we spent maybe $400,000 in TV ads, sent Clinton there once, and helped out on some local voter registration efforts to create a registration surge among African-Americans and Latinos/Latinas. The thing was, we never thought we would win Texas, but our modest effort there meant the Bush campaign ended up spending about $27,000,000 in the state (in those days, that was real money to a presidential campaign), and Bush and several surrogates made several trips there to nail down the state. That was a damn good return on investment, as it meant a lot less Bush campaign money and candidate time was spent in states like Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all of which we won narrowly.
Here's another story from a race that was a lot closer than 1992, the 2004 battle between the second George Bush and John Kerry. In spite of the fact that the campaign was very close and hard fought, Karl Rove made an aggressive gamble and did a nationwide TV buy. Rove realized that key to the Bush victory was building enthusiasm among Republican base voters everywhere, getting evangelical church leaders and other conservatives emailing each other and calling each other about how important this election was. He also wanted to boost Republicans everywhere because he wanted Bush to have a mandate and congressional majorities to push an aggressive agenda in the second term. I definitely noticed the impact of those national ads in a state like South Dakota, where I was working on an IE to help Democratic Leader Tom Daschle survive a very tough challenge. We would have won that race except for that national ad campaign driving up Republican base turnout. Democrats would do well to take this lesson from Rove, especially in an era where social media can spread nationally like wildfire with relatively modest investments. We should be running a national campaign, not just one focused on 4 or 5 key states.
It's time to be aggressive in this election. Yes, absolutely do everything in our power to lock down the most critical swing states: let's get Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in great shape for victory. But let's not let PTSD from the 2016 race keep us from expanding this map. Right now, polling shows Biden ahead in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, and even Texas -- and the Trump campaign is clearly nervous enough about those states that they are spending real money in them. Let's make them play defense in all those states, which will stretch them way thin, and will help us win really important down-ballot races. We can make at least modest investments now to build up our chances in those states down the road, and see where things are in the fall.
In Senate races, where our candidates are seeing big fundraising hauls and rising poll numbers, let's make them play some defense there as well. In addition to Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana, and North Carolina, where the DSCC has already been playing hard and where we have great chances, let's force the Republicans to sweat in states where where we have good candidates: Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, and South Carolina, and yes, even Alaska, where polls show our candidate only five points down.
In the House, our first-term incumbents in competitive seats have been raising money like gangbusters and are in remarkably good shape. Let's take nothing for granted, but there's also a lot of great challengers who could help us add considerably to our Democratic majority. Picking up another 20 House seats is within range if we stretch just a little.
One final thing we have to focus on: 2020 is the year before redistricting. The more we can make this a national win, the more places we compete, the more state legislative seats we pick up to help us win the redistricting wars.
This is not a zero-sum game. If we put money into extra states and races, both big and small donors will notice, and momentum will build in terms of fundraising as well as grassroots energy.
There are a couple of other big reasons to expand the map and turn this into a national wave election.
First is the obvious specter of Donald Trump wanting to use any excuse to contest this election and try to overturn the results. If our victory comes down to close victories in three or four target states decided by a few thousand votes, without us winning any other states, Trump is going to scream bloody murder and claim this was a stolen election. If we add FL, GA, IA, NC, OH, and TX to our list of state victories, he will be utterly humiliated. There will be a lot fewer Republicans trying to make the case that the election was somehow stolen. It's not like Trump won't still be whining about how unfair everything is; it's not like he will stop egging on supporters to commit violence and make things ugly for the Democrats who have won. But a big defeat across a large number of states is a completely different narrative than a narrow Electoral College victory won in a few states.
My second point brings me back to the bold and progressive issue agenda that Biden is rolling out. We're going to need a big win, a sweeping mandate, to be as big and bold in our agenda as we need to be to solve the tough problems America is facing in the aftermath of Trump, COVID, and this recession, and to address the racial issues that have persisted throughout our country’s history. Biden has said that he thinks we are going to need to be bolder than FDR in solving our problems, but FDR had big majorities in both houses of Congress to help him enact the New Deal. LBJ's big landslide in 1964 enabled him to pass the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Ted Kennedy's immigration reform bill, Head Start, legal services, and the other great legislation of the Great Society.
Democrats are going to need more than the 50-50 tie which takes away from McConnell's ability to block everything, as important as that is, to pass the legislation that needs to get passed. Do we really want to have to rely on Joe Manchin to give us the winning vote on the climate change bill we need to pass? Think how much easier a solid progressive agenda would be to accomplish if we pick up six Senate seats and 20 House seats to go along with a Biden victory. We need to be courageous in our political strategy as well as our policy stands.
Remember, neither FDR nor JFK nor LBJ in the '60s had strong progressive credentials going into the presidency. Like Biden, they were viewed as moderates. But the times and the progressive movements of those eras demanded big things. The moment Joe Biden becomes president is going to demand the same kind of big agenda, because Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are leaving us a stinking mess of gargantuan proportions. If we don't clean up that mess and make real progress, voters will be ready to turn us out of power, and we might well get someone just as racist and rightwing as Trump, but far smoother and more competent.
So it's time for some Democratic optimism, and some Democratic courage. Let's take nothing for granted, do everything in our power to secure those key swing states, but let's also stretch and play to win big. As Joe likes to say, our best days still lie ahead...