Memo: Time for Dems To Come Together

You can catch Simon talking about this memo in a new That Trippi Show pod, 3 Ways To In in 2022; in this Newsy piece with Andrew Rafferty; and in this Background Briefing with Ian Masters podcast.  Simon and the insights from the memo are also cited in Ron Brownstein's two new Atlantic essays (here, here), this Daily Beast David Rothkopf column and this Politico article by Christopher Cadelago and Laura Barron-Lopez.

Time for Dems To Come Together – Over the last few weeks we’ve talked about how an early, compelling 2022 election narrative has emerged for Democrats – lean into defeating COVID, sell the rest of the agenda (growing economy, climate, health care, etc) and brand the GOP as extremists, unfit to govern.  Given the threat an unrepentant MAGA/GOP is to our democracy, keeping them out of power next year may be the single most important thing we can do to defend our democracy and advance the President’s democracy vs autocracy agenda. Considering the stakes, 2022 is no ordinary election and we simply must be doing everything we can to make sure we prevail.

Which is why all Democrats should be more alarmed by the drop in the President’s approval rating since a rancorous debate has broken out over his post-American Rescue Plan agenda.  Since June 24th when the two separate bills, infrastructure and reconciliation were joined and intense internal party in-fighting broke out, the President’s approval rating on 538 has dropped from 53.2%-43% (+10.2) to 43.9%-51.1% (-7.2) – a drop of 17 points.  This drop came at a time when the economy was creating 1m jobs a month, GDP growth was at 6.5% and tens of millions were receiving child tax credit payments. In our view the drop can be explained by the public believing the President was not attending to the big job at hand, defeating COVID, and thus even through the economy had started to truly boom the President got no credit for it.  It is widely believed that the President will need to be at 50-51-52 for the 2022 election to be competitive.  At 44-45-46, where we are now, we absolutely lose both chambers next year. Thus his decline is no small matter, and the longer he stays down the harder it will be to get back up. 

What this means is that we need to put this debilitating period of rancor, of process and tactics behind us as soon as possible.  All Democrats need to come together and get a deal done, recognizing the more time we spend fighting and not doing what the people want right now the harder 2022 (and Virginia) will be. The President needs to have a fierce urgency in his work to get a deal done, allowing Dems to once again refocus on what voters want more than anything else – defeating COVID/ensuring our recovery/returning to normal life.  As Dems talk about their agenda, any part of it, it needs to begin with “as we work to defeat COVID, create a strong, growing economy again, return to normal, we also need to (climate, health care, child tax credit etc).”  For many/most voters there is no Biden agenda outside of COVID and recovery, the ARP now.  The rest of his agenda needs to be seen as a complement to these core issues which are dictating our politics now, and are very likely to do so in the next election as very little of what's in the two new bills will be robustly implemented by next November.  The work of defeating COVID and ensuring our recovery isn’t done, and that is simply where our governing and political focus needs to be

As we go into more detail below, it’s our belief that Democrats should not expect a significant improvement in the President's standing by the passage of these two bills under debate right now without first firmly establishing that they are as a party responsible for defeating COVID, ushering in the economic recovery.  It is not enough that COVID ends, or the economy gets better. Democrats have to get credit for these things happening, and right now based on current polling those links are not adequately established in voter's minds.

Every part of the post-ARP Biden agenda will become more powerful, salient if packaged this way, and not alone, separate.  Democrats need to run on the whole agenda, ARP+ infrastructure+BBB, recognizing that during this time of intense discussion of the last two parts, absent the ARP, the President's numbers have dropped, significantly. As Gavin Newsom showed us, it's about defeating COVID, sell the rest of the agenda, define the GOP as extremists/unfit to govern. Everything in Biden's agenda becomes more powerful in that frame. 

It is time now to come together, get a deal done and spend the next year leaning in hard to the promising frame we’ve seen emerge in recent weeks.  Winning this next election is going to be very hard – the longer we keep fighting the harder it is going to be.  And it all starts and ends with defeating COVID.  For Joe Biden and the Democrats it remains job #1.  

A final note on polling, and the logic behind this analysis

In politics an issue can be popular, but not move voters. To move votes an issue has to be both popular AND important.  It's why we believe so much of the polling we've seen this cycle is junky, even misleading.  Polls that test an issue absent establishing its relative import, and how it stands up to sustained GOP attacks, are in our mind close to worthless. Popularity alone tells you very little about how an issue will perform in the real world in a far more complex and challenging issue environment. 

This helps explain why over the past few months the economy could have been booming, the center-left family could have been spending tens of millions on promoting infrastructure and Build Back Better, and the President's numbers could have plummeted.  The booming economy, climate, health care, an economy for all are of course both popular and important to voters, they just aren't as important as defeating COVID.  And thus my great fear is this period of an extended conversation about this part of the President's agenda, disconnected from his work on COVID, not only failed to keep his numbers up but may have directly contributed to taking his numbers down. The tens of millions of dollars being spent now selling BBB is reminding voters in the most important parts of the country that the President isn't in fact focused on COVID; and yes, these ads reminding folks that he’s moved on from COVID, particularly at a time when kids were going back to school across the country, intensifying everyone's concern, may have contributed to the damage done to him and the party over the past few months. 

I’ve been on several polling calls in recent weeks where folks talked about how hard it was to break through right now with the BBB agenda, how much people were still fixated on COVID, getting back to normal.  I don't really know why anyone could be surprised by this.  COVID is a disruption in our lives akin to a World War, a Great Depression, something so big and huge and scary that until it is gone, defeated, everything else is secondary.  As I've been writing for some time, it is a global collective trauma perhaps as significant as WWII.  It and its aftermath may dominate politics for years to come, and trying to sell something even as virtuous as the child tax credit is just bouncing off. 

The lesson here is that the only polls anyone in a position of influence should pay attention to have to test beyond popularity - they have to test and establish the relative importance of issues, and how these issues perform when challenged by Republicans. Almost all of the polling I've seen in recent months has been testing infrastructure and BBB exclusively, outside of the broader issue environment, and almost never against anticipated GOP attacks.  They merely tested popularity.  And I ask my fellow center-lefties - is there really any doubt that an agenda which gave you all sorts of stuff for free would not be popular? What were we learning in these polls, and did they create a false sense of security about the President's standing at a time when his numbers kept coming down? Did they prevent an obvious course correction, one I called for as early as June 9th?

I think we need to have a big conversation inside the family about polling, and a new theory of the case that polling and data can be spun, are an important part the daily information war.  I respectfully disagree with this view.  Polling and data is the place where all of us in a diverse party can come together and find common ground.  It allows us to put aside our ideologies and biases, and listen to the public, where they are and what they want. It’s what helps keep this disparate party together, and allows us to come up with common strategies that help us win.  Politicizing or spinning polls and data may have helped contribute to what has been a disastrous last few months for the President's approval rating, and also, I worry, may end up eliminating one of the most important tools we have for keeping the Democratic family together. And as someone who helped create modern spin in my time in the Clinton War Room, I can tell you there are limits to what can get spun in politics. There are limits. 

Finally, given everything I've written here, I don’t believe that Democrats should expect the President's approval to rise significantly when the two bills are passed.  It’s possible. But if you posit he’ll gain, answer these questions first:

- Why did the President's approval rating drop so much after the passage of American Rescue Plan, a bill which will spend more money this cycle than BBB + infrastructure, and which led to 6.5% GDP growth, 1m jobs a month, 180m people receiving direct payment and another 40m receiving child tax payments? We already passed a big economic bill and his numbers dropped. Why will these bills be different? Maybe because it's not all about the economy right now....

- Why would the President's approval rise for passing bills which during the time they were debated/sold to the public the President's approval dropped by 17 points? Haven't we already had a test of the saliency of these bills, and the test showed they were not capable of improving his numbers or even keeping them from plummeting?

- Have we, during the course of selling BBB learned, that there is limited political and electoral benefit in programs which target narrow numbers of voters regardless of the virtue of the program itself? As I write in this piece, I think we have, which is why I think we need to craft a winning narrative around universal benefits not targeted ones - defeat COVID, climate/health care/prosperity for all, etc and define the GOP/MAGA as extremists/unfit to govern. 

Here is another link to my indepth analysis which shows voters elected Joe Biden to do one thing above all else - defeat COVID, reboot the economy, get us back to normal.  Which is why I think we get the President's numbers back up not just by passing these two bills, but by adopting the frame Newsom gave us - defeat COVID/return to normal, sell the rest of the agenda, define them as extremists/unfit to govern.  Defeating COVID and getting credit for it, making it clear to voters we know this is their #1 concern, is the key that unlocks the power of the rest of the agenda. There is no BBB and infrastructure without defeating COVID first. 

As for next year, given how radical the GOP continues to be, I’m very optimistic that we can take this narrative and agenda and make what will be a tough election competitive.  And again, given how radical they continue to be, I would not want the job of selling all that to a COVID weary public, which is why today I would much rather than be us than them.  I think their path to victory in 2022 is harder to see right now than ours.

This memo was originally published on October 5th, was significantly revised and expanded on October 7th and updated on October 27th.