As we waited for the results of the 2020 elections to become clear on election night, one thing became unmistakable as the hours wore on and Democrats lost ground in Texas and a slew of seats in Congress across the country.
A reckoning was coming.
After a fractious and crowded primary that seemed like an extension of the tumult from the 2016 elections, it seemed preordained that Democrats would need to reconcile the gulf that seems to exist between its progressive and more moderate wings.
Now that Democrats have lost races in places as disparate as South Florida and Staten Island in New York, the recriminations have begun to flow anew in what feels like a never-ending cycle or screaming into the void.
The beef came to light on a widely reported post-election briefing during which several members of Congress, including Vincente Gonzales here in Texas, forcefully pushed back on messaging employed by progressives on everything from police reform to healthcare policy.
Members who barely won like Gonzales and many who lost blamed Republican efforts to define police reform for a lot of their plight. Republican candidates and their canvassers spent months telling voters that Democrats wanted to defund the police and put their communities at risk. The fact that it wasn’t true barely mattered, Republicans had found yet another effective way to reframe a progressive policy, and hung it as the albatross around Democrats necks in Texas and swing districts across the country.
It was an attack that proved to be as effective, if not more, than the old classic standby they continued to push South Texas and other communities across the nation. If they needed a one-two lunch this cycle, they found it by pairing defund messaging with the threat of encroaching socialism.
Of course, the progressive flank of the party wasted no time pushing back. The problem as they saw it wasn’t that progressive policies were unpopular and cost moderates elections, it was that moderates didn’t lead boldly enough and adapt to a combustible new campaign environment.
In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Justice Democrats pointed to a slew of television ads run across the country that attacked Democrats not on defund messaging but more standard-issue fare to demonstrate that it wasn’t progressive messaging that hurt them.
This analysis overlooks a lot of the unseen from the 2020 election cycle. In direct mail, phone calls and door to door contacts, Republicans were attacking Democrats in Texas, saying they wanted to defund the police. Governor Greg Abbott saw how effective it was and blanketed the state with television ads using the same attacks, helping dampen Democratic hopes to take back the state house.
But here we find ourselves, once again, watching the not-as-different-as-they-think wings of the Democratic Party shout past each other rather than making a sober assessment of what worked and what didn’t in 2020.
Not to put too fine a point on it but the problem isn’t located on an ideological or policy axis. Democrats didn’t lose because they were wrong on the merits, or that their message was ineffective. It was that Republicans defined the issue early and hammered their point home before Democrats had even managed to lace up their sneakers and get out of the starting gate.
The key for Democrats in Texas and nationally isn’t to figure out if they should lean to the left or the middle, it’s figuring out the emotional through-line that will connect their best policy ideas with the intangible needs of voters and embracing the type of message discipline they both loath and admire Republicans for mastering.
For Democrats to succeed moving forward they need to get a lot better at defining the issue and going on offense. If they don’t, they’ll be in for a long year.
Photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images
Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.