AMERICA’S NOBLEST ELECTORAL tradition is gathering around each midterm election night and laughing at the concession speech of whichever losing ghoul you find most loathsome, mocking his weeping children and imagining the pharmaceutical cocktail powering the defeated candidate and his grim wife through their brief appearance in what has become, tonight, the saddest ballroom in the United States. (Though electoral denialism, among the other issues it raises, now threatens even this pleasure. It is one thing to subvert democracy, must these freaks also deny us our future Weeping Santorums?)
The second-noblest midterm tradition is the widespread scapegoating after a sweeping and overdetermined loss. This year, sadly, slated right next to Doctor Oz in the Loser Category, are the would-be scapegoaters of the Democratic Party, forced to confront a night that was neither a full vindication of their preferred strategy nor a defeat humiliating enough to justify a full purge of their enemies. If the Democratic Party as a political entity averted a catastrophe this week, its scolds and gatekeepers really couldn’t have drawn up a worse result. How do you trash “activists” for a loss that didn’t quite materialize after a solid year of preemptively blaming them for it? I imagine we’ll soon see.
Rep. Jim Clyburn’s eagerness to skip to the devastating aftermath was almost palpable in the runup to the results. The Friday before the election, Politico’s Jonathan Martin published a long explanation of how, with the help of Clyburn’s behind-the-scenes influence, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries had positioned himself to become House minority leader, capitalizing on a presumptive crushing Democratic defeat that would force Speaker Nancy Pelosi to step aide. Clyburn spent election day in the ear of CBS’s Jim Costa, preparing for “a real good assessment of where we are and who we are,” a total rethink of messaging and strategy, gravely suggesting it’s already time to “plan for 2024 differently than what took place in 2022.” This was well before voting was finished; I don’t think, in other words, he was signaling a post-election openness to a Pritzker/Fetterman 2024 ticket.
It would now seem that this cycle’s ritual flaying of the out-of-touch far-left will have to be postponed or altered. The tireless and organized progressive effort to run a national campaign that was relentlessly pro-crime, pro-inflation, and pro-classroom accommodations for cat children proved, if not quite an outright winner, at least not a definitive loser. For members of the press tearing up prewritten News Analysis pieces about gas prices and bail reform, this is no great loss: Republicans now have scapegoating of their own to do.
But if your worldview required you to believe that the American people would decisively punish your side for the hubris and overreach of your internal enemies, it ought to be hard to move forward from this one with the same certainty of purpose. Or it ought to be for people with any shame, I mean. There are a couple likely losses in New York that can credibly be blamed on the inadvertent combination of Andrew Cuomo’s fetish for empowering conservatives and Eric Adams’s decision to run a Law and Order campaign against his own city, party, and mayoral administration, but I can imagine Sean Patrick Maloney on a Sunday Show this weekend blaming his likely loss on activists demanding student debt relief instead of highlighting the Democrats’ promise to negotiate the price of a handful of drugs beginning in 2026.
On the whole, though, it’s difficult to imagine a tedious “lessons Democrats must learn from this loss” take—one happening to resemble countless other lists of lessons dating back to 1981—emerging from the 2022 elections. Which will save plenty of space for the paeans to the return of bipartisanship in a narrowly divided Washington, and the preparations to blame the right people for its inevitable failure.
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