Here’s to 2021 and (gulp) the year ahead

Michael Janofsky

Finally, the holidays are upon us, a time for family, parties and a chance to toast a truly memorable 2021. No need to recount everything we salute, although a few things are worth noting. A lethal attack on the US Capitol. Donald Trump still insisting he’s president. A messy exit from Afghanistan. Another rhetorical campaign to fight climate change. Rising China.

The list goes on, but why look backward with so much more excitement ahead, not least the 2022 mid-term elections, which will set America’s political agenda for the two years leading to the next presidential election?

Still, as a prologue, 2021 provides both Republicans and Democrats valuable lessons to contemplate this holiday season. The recent elections showed Democrats that banging away on Trump may be the wrong way to win hearts and minds in 2022. Republicans found they can succeed even without Trump if they concentrate on kitchen-table issues of working families, once the domain of Democrats.

But for both parties, insights gained this year masked a deeper concern facing each party: how to achieve unity for electoral success. Over the last five years — four under Trump, nearly one under President Joe Biden — fault lines emerged over policy (Democrats) and personality (Republicans), to say nothing of the overall contempt each party has for the other’s agenda.

For Democrats, opposing views by moderates and progressives catalysed over the size, scope and cost of Biden’s $2-plus trillion domestic spending agenda. The differences sparked anger, frustration and widespread losses in the recent off-year elections. The bickering rubbed many Democrat voters the wrong way. They were hoping Biden could deliver efficiency and unity as he promised and live up to his self-proclaimed role of deal-maker. Instead, they turned to Republican candidates who were more in sync with the struggles of everyday Americans on economic issues and more attuned to their strong feelings on such culture-war issues as parental involvement in education, religious rights and freedom from masks and vaccinations. Overall, voters appeared more interested in solving problems than highlighting them. 

“The Democrats need to take a serious look at how we chose to engage with the Trump narrative,” Dan Sena, a Democratic strategist told The New York Times. “This was an election where the Democrats did not lean into their accomplishments. And as we look to 2022, we’re going to have to ask some hard questions about whether that’s the right strategy.”

Worse for Democrats is the likely loss of control of the House next year, which would give Biden almost zero chance to achieve anything of consequence going forward. Further, Republicans control more state legislatures, the bodies that redraw Congressional district lines every ten years. Already, they have used their “crack and pack” strategy of splitting Democrat districts to weaken their prospects against Republican candidates (crack) and combining weak Republican districts to assure victory in what were once Democrat districts (pack).

Democrats have a better chance to hold their majority in the Senate, maybe even expanding it by a seat or two, but it’s still uncertain. For Republicans, their differences amount to a fundamental challenge of cementing party identity, with Trump – surprise, surprise – as the dividing line. As much as his base still loves him, other Republicans prefer never to see him return to public office, given his predilection for chaos, lies and disdain for traditional democratic norms. Like Democrats, they regard him as the kind of threat that would incite an insurrection against democracy – oh, right, that happened – and a potential drag on Republican candidates next year. Last month’s Republican wave notwithstanding, they fear a resurgent Trump in 2024 would still alienate independents and suburban voters who are sick of his re-litigating the 2020 election and tired of his histrionics. 

All that has fed a rising Never-Trump faction of the Grand Old Party, a movement to restore traditional conservatism, civility, competence, reasoned compromise and Constitutional limits – all things foreign to Trump. His overall influence on the party will be more measurable after next year’s elections. But a yearning to move on persists, leading some Republicans to suggest a radical realignment of Never-Trumpers joining centrist Democrats, if not to form a third party then to support candidates more appealing than wild-eyed Trump loyalists.

“Breaking away from the GOP and starting a new centre-right party may prove in time to be the last resort if Trump-backed candidates continue to win Republican primaries,” two prominent Republicans – Miles Taylor, a former chief of staff for the Department of Homeland Security under Trump, and Christine Todd Whitman, a former governor of New Jersey – wrote in The Times. “We and our allies have debated the option of starting a new party for months and will continue to explore its viability in the long run.”

A third party born of Republican disunity would immediately benefit Democrats. So would an alternative of Never-Trumpers remaining united in appearance but quietly voting for Democrats. Either approach would buy time for Trump fever to break – if, in fact, it ever does. But it leaves a big question for Republicans: which version of the party do they prefer, traditional or Trumpist?

Democrats would love Trump to run again, betting that voters have little appetite for a rerun of his America First isolationist years after Biden reconnected with the world. Insiders say he’s already decided to run again. But two words could make him pause: Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson was a Democrat and former Illinois governor who twice ran for president against Dwight Eisenhower, in 1952 and 1956, and was forever more known as a double loser. Trump hates no descriptor more than “loser”, which helps explain his zombie lie that he won last year.

As if all that isn’t enough to nag at both parties over holiday eggnog, stuffed turkey and roast potatoes, the US Supreme Court next year will decide two major cases prominent in the current culture wars. One will determine if women will still have a Constitutional right to abortion. The other will decide whether private citizens have a right to carry a concealed weapon outside their home.

So happy holidays, everyone. Start the drinking. Sadly, for one American party, the hangover might last well beyond 2022.


Tractors, truckers and Martyrs


 

The nerve of some Republicans

Republicans rarely miss a chance to show how they feel about party members who stand against something that former president Donald Trump supports. Thirteen Republican House members voted with Democrats to pass President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, apostasy to their House colleagues. With six Democrat defections in a nearly evenly divided chamber, the Republican votes gave President Joe Biden a rare bipartisan victory.

Imagine, a bipartisan . . . anything!

“Any Republican that votes yes to an infrastructure bill that helps Biden pass his agenda when bumbling Biden doesn’t even know what he’s doing, then that Republican is a traitor to our party, a traitor to their voters and a traitor to our donors,” Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene, a firebrand from Georgia, told reporters before the vote. Meanwhile Rep Matt Gaetz of Florida, who is being investigated by the Department of Justice for sex trafficking, said, “I can’t believe Republicans just gave the Democrats their socialism bill.”

The right-wing echo chamber also chimed in. “Every Republican who voted for this monstrosity who is not already retiring should be primaried and defeated by candidates who will actually resist the Left-wing agenda,” Philip Klein wrote in the National Review, a magazine founded in 1955 by conservative William F. Buckley. “Those who are retiring should be shamed for the rest of their lives.”

One Republican took it a step further. Rep Paul Gosar, a far-right House member from Arizona and former dentist, posted on social media a photoshopped cartoon video that shows him killing a monster superimposed with the face of New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He also swings swords at President Biden.

“Any anime fans out there?” Gosar said in a tweet.

For all that, the House stripped him of his committee assignments.

He can’t keep on truckin’ anymore

Long-serving elected officials lose all the time. Political neophytes win all the time. Sometimes it happens in the same race. Still, the loss by Democrat Stephen Sweeney last month was a stunner. As the president of the New Jersey senate for a dozen years, he was one of the most political figures in the state, representing a district held by Democrats for nearly 50 years.

The winner was Republican newcomer Edward Durr, whose victory not only symbolised the unexpected election gains the party made nationwide last month. It also showed once again that anybody in America can win public office.

Durr, 58, is a commercial truck driver, 25 years on the job. He’s also a Donald Trump supporter whose social media history had drawn widespread criticism for comments not everyone viewed as nice. He described Islam as a “cult of hate”.  He said the 6 January attack on the US Capitol was not an insurrection but “an unauthorized entry by undocumented federal employers”. And he compared vaccine mandates to the Holocaust.

“I’m a passionate guy and I sometimes say things in the heat of the moment,” he told local reporters after the voting. “If I said things in the past that hurt anybody’s feelings, I sincerely apologise.”

He vowed to bring an open mind to his new post. When Fox News asked him what his first order of business will be upon swearing in, he answered with scary honesty. “I really don’t know,” he said. “That’s the key factor. I don’t know what I don’t know, so I will learn what I need to know. And I’m going to guarantee you one thing — I will be the voice, and people will hear me.”

To jail or not to jail

The House panel investigating the root causes of the 6 January attack on the US Capitol has interviewed hundreds of witnesses and issued subpoenas to dozens of top officials from the Trump years. The work continues as Trump is fighting to keep relevant records of calls and communications out of the panel’s hands.

One witness the panel is most eager to interview is Steve Bannon, a former adviser and a major architect of Trump’s America First agenda. After he refused to appear before the panel, a federal grand jury in New York charged him with contempt of Congress, leading to his arrest. What that means, exactly, isn’t clear. Generally, a grand jury indictment can lead to prison. But jailing Bannon or any other prominent Trump official could become a real headache for Democrats.

“The last thing Democrats want is prison for Bannon,” said a former Trump insider. “Then he becomes a martyr, and that only incites Trump’s followers more.”


Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times

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