So What Happened?

“The people who come down from the hills after the battle to shoot the wounded.” – Murray Kempton on pundits

I am quite certain several of my colleagues here at Bearing Drift will spend all sorts of bandwidth about all of the things Glenn Youngkin and his fellow Republicans did right. My focus is what Terry McAuliffe and his fellow Democrats did wrong.

We’ll start across the Potomac, because the first major problem for the Democrats came from Washington – but it’s not what conventional wisdom says. While the two wings of the party arguing with each other about the infrastructure and reconciliation bills certainly didn’t help, that roiling battle had begun months before with little impact on Biden’s approval rating.

That changed dramatically with the fall of Kabul (emphasis added).

For most of 2021, Washington Democrats were largely staying out of Terry McAuliffe’s way, while Republicans were forcing Glenn Youngkin to talk out of both sides of his mouth regarding the Big Lie. All in all, the national events weren’t helping a party that desperately needed it.

Last week, they finally went the RPV’s way.

The fall of Kabul swiftly ended whatever honeymoon Joe Biden still had with the voters. Five-thirty-eight‘s approval tracking has Biden below 50%. Presumption of “the adults back in charge” have been shaken.

Abandoning Afghanistan was the switch-flipper, turning Biden’s net approval negative and keeping it there. It was especially damaging with the national security Red Dogs who were furious at Trump’s Taliban deal – and a demographic overrepresented in the Northern Virginia suburbs.

So there were serious political headwinds for Democrats – as the elections in New Jersey are also showing. However, T-Mac had faced – and beaten – national political headwinds before. To be sure, he faced a better opponent this time, but he was also very much a worse candidate himself. To wit…

  1. Using local endorsees like Bill Kristol and the Vindmans more publicly to remind Virginia voters (especially those Red Dogs) that McAuliffe is more like them than Biden appeared to be with the abandonment of Afghanistan. It wouldn’t have eliminated the damage, but it would have limited it.
  2. Linking Youngkin to Trump required specific consequences: Nationwide, voters in 2016 weren’t given reasons to vote against Trump besides his character. They had and were given reasons in 2020. T-Mac went back to the 2016 model. Yours truly has sounded the alarm over control of election infrastructure, but the campaign was largely silent on the issue, even as Youngkin himself repeatedly courted Biden victory deniers. Ironically, by highlighting the Youngkin-Trump links without spelling out the consequences, T-Mac himself helped to validate Youngkin’s only-the-good-parts-of-Trump schtick.
  3. Youngkin’s record had no scrutiny: Yes, Virginia, Glenn Youngkin has a policy record. It’s one terrible song (the Phase 1 China debacle) but it’s still a record. It was never brought up. So voters thought Youngkin was a fresh face looking for his first at-bat, instead of a whiffer who was out of his league.
  4. There was no real response to Youngkin’s CRT accusation: Yes, the parents line was a gaffe, but that didn’t mean Youngkin was somehow invulnerable about the school curriculum battle. T-Mac and the Democrats could – and should – have highlighted what “ban CRT” actually means in other states. Even before Youngkin tried to slip through praise for book banning, he still should have been forced to answer question after question regarding just what he would ban: Nat Turner? George Thomas? John Minor Botts? Harriet Tubman? “Whiteness”? “Abolitionist teachings”? There were plenty of opportunities to put Youngkin on the defensive on this issue. They were never taken.
  5. Youngkin flat-out lied about the Department of Justice defending school board members and was never called out on it. Why did the Democrats not provide chapter and verse of the threats of violence against school board members and educators? From what I could see, Youngkin’s assertion that the DOJ was “silencing parents” went completely unanswered – and a lie unanswered is a lie accepted.

As Mike Tyson put it, “Every one has a plan until they’ve been punched in the mouth.” T-Mac took hits from Kabul and from himself, but for reasons known only to him, he refused to adjust.

Credit to Glenn Youngkin; he ran a very good campaign, but he had the added advantage of an opponent who wouldn’t change the game plan.

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