PAF in The San Francisco Chronicle: Democrats are ‘bed-wetting’ even amid electoral wins. Is the anxiety justified?

Democrats are notorious bed-wetters — a political colloquialism that roughly translates to irrationally overreacting to stuff that could happen, but hasn’t.

And they’re doing it again, right now. 

The latest trigger is a recent batch of polls showed President Joe Biden trailing Donald Trump in five key swing states and with pivotal parts of the coalition that elected him in 2020 not feeling enthusiastic about him. 

But analysts say Democrats should be feeling better after Tuesday night’s victories in red and purple states — and perhaps Republicans should be the ones feeling anxious about 2024.

“Looking ahead to 2024, I would so much rather be us than them,” said Simon Rosenberg, a longtime Democratic strategist who is someone to listen to if you’re a Democrat who is panicking about Biden’s reelection.

Rosenberg was one of few who predicted that there wasn’t going to be a Republican red wave taking over Congress in 2022 while most of the rest of the Democratic establishment was in full freak-out mode. Rosenberg assured the anxious that the wave wouldn’t come after the Supreme Court took away guaranteed abortion rights. Nor would there be one, he said, after revelations about how Trump tried to subvert democracy during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

But Rosenberg, who writes the Hopium Chronicles newsletter, told me Thursday that Democrats shouldn’t get comfortable just because they parlayed support for abortion rights into victories in Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania. It continued the string of electoral victories since the June 2022 Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization rescinded the constitutional right to obtain an abortion and left regulation up to individual states.

Democrats are winning even though people of color, progressive white voters, young voters and women are not energetically behind Biden now. 

“We have to acknowledge that a year before the election, some of our coalition has wandered … and we need to bring them home,” Rosenberg told Democratic activists on a post-election Zoom call this week, referring to “young voters and young people of color.” “It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. We don’t have a primary. There’s no reason for a coalition to be engaged.”

David Plouffe, one of the architects of Barack Obama’s White House victories, urged Democrats to unite behind the existential threat Trump poses to democracy. 

Plouffe famously used the term during a low point in Obama’s 2008 campaign, hoping to dissuade Democrats from their “hand-wringing and bed-wetting.” On Thursday, he encouraged Democrats to channel their current anxieties in a more positive way. 

“It’s going to be another tight race and Donald Trump could very well return, this time to autocratic rule,” Plouffe told me. “Anxiety that is directed to ensuring that doesn’t happen is OK. Bed-wetting and hand-wringing is not.”

Here are some things that Democrats and Republicans should be worried about — and some things they shouldn’t — after a tumultuous week for the politically anxious:

Black, Latino and young voters are unenthused: The New York Times/Siena College poll that inspired much Democratic agita this week showed that Biden’s support among Black, Latino and young voters has plummeted. 

“It’s very concerning,” said Tory Gavito, co-founder and president of Way to Win, a progressive donor network that has raised $265 million. Democrats have “overperformed since 2018, because big, massive, really diverse coalitions have come together to reject MAGA extremism.”

Gavito told me that “we need to be worried about the fact — that still remains — that many in the American electorate cannot articulate what good Biden has done since he entered office. And so it is very good that the electorate reminded us this Tuesday — in this off year — that they do not stand on the side of MAGA. They see MAGA taking away their freedoms, whether it be about reproductive choice, or what books their kids read in school.” 

Concerns about Biden’s age: Like Biden, Bill Clinton and Obama both had approval ratings in the low 40s at similar points in their first terms, and both won reelection.

But neither Clinton nor Obama — both of whom were in their mid-40s when they defeated older men to win the presidency — faced persistent questions about his age like the 80-year-old Biden has. That Biden is lined up to face the 77-year-old Trump does not negate anxiety about Biden’s age. 

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, president of the young voter-focused NextGen America, recalled that young people weren’t enthused about Biden in 2020, either. Respondents to a 2020 NextGen survey described Biden as a “dated option” who “caters to the ultra-wealthy” and “represents the stagnation of American politics.” Half of the respondents to a separate Harvard study about that time had an unfavorable impression of Biden. 

What turned those voters around was a lot of outreach — NextGen spent $45 million to connect to young voters in 11 states in 2020 — to explain the differences between Biden’s positions on the environment and abortion rights and Trump’s. It worked: Youth turnout grew 11 percentage points in 2020 from four years earlier, and the vast majority backed Biden.

The challenge: There are 4 million new young voters every year who need to be educated, Tzintzún Ramirez said. 

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done so that young people understand and know what they got in return” from Biden’s election, Tzintzún Ramirez said. “And what this administration has delivered on progressive policies.”

Trouble in the suburbs for Republicans: Republicans are continuing to lose suburban voters, in part because their position on abortion is unpopular. 

That was visible in Virginia, where GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin tried to flip the Democratic-controlled state Senate by rallying voters behind a 15-week abortion ban. Youngkin’s political action committee put $1.4 million behind ads touting the ban, which he envisioned as a way to prevent Democrats from characterizing Republicans as being for a total ban on abortion.

Voters didn’t buy it, ushering in Democratic majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Voters also rejected GOP culture war calls in many local races over so-called “parental rights.” Campaigns spent $5.5 million on education issues there, according to the advertising tracking firm AdImpact. It is unclear how much of that was spent on parental rights issues, but those battles were the most high profile in the state.

“The suburbs decide who runs America,” Ron Nehring, former California Republican Party chair and a former top adviser to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, told me. He wishes the GOP was more focused in its messaging. 

“Suburban voters are in play because they are not on board with the Democrats’ left wing social agenda particularly on crime, homelessness and the pronoun squad,” Nehring said. “Yet, the burden on Republicans is to demonstrate our team is the one you can and should trust to run the show, keep communities clean and safe, and have good local schools. Relitigating the 2020 election, sending mixed messages on Jan. 6 and being all over the map on abortion are all nationally induced distractions limiting Republican success.”

Even conservative commentators blasted the GOP for its abortion stand. Ann Coulter tweeted that “pro-lifers are going to wipe out the Republican Party.”

“A 15-week abortion limit would have been fine with Virginia voters,” Coulter wrote on X. “But Republicans couldn’t promise to stop there without risking a primary challenge from FULL-BAN pro-lifers.”

Concerns about the economy continue: Several recent polls show that voters have more faith in Trump’s ability to handle the economy than Biden’s — even though inflation is 3.4%, half of what it was a year ago and the 3.9% unemployment rate is up slightly from the 50-year low it hit in April. 

Joe Jacobson, founder and executive director of the pro-Democrat Progress Action Fund, said his concerns about the economy were at about “a five or six” out of 10.

“I think it’s rightful that voters are upset about that. But we need to be making sure people realize just how bad things were” before Biden took office, said Jacobson, whose Democratic super PAC’s motto is “when Republicans go low, we go lower, because in politics you have to put your opponent on defense and shape the narrative.”

His organization has made two abortion rights ads that went viral, with more than 11 million views. In one, a father is in a hospital trying to get help for his 12-year-old daughter who was raped. But the doctor is stymied by a Republican congressman who opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest. 

“When people go into the polls, maybe they don’t love the president for inflation,” Jacobson said. “But their priority is ‘I do not want old, creepy Republicans coming into my bedroom, coming into my doctor’s office telling me and my family what I can and cannot do.’”

Ultimately, Rosenberg urged activists listening to his post-election breakdown this week “to stop living in negative space.”

“As Democrats we have to spend much more of our time living in hope and making our positive case,” Rosenberg said. “It’s amazing to me how quickly when I have these kinds of conversations, when I write stuff, people go immediately into the worst case, the negative place, the place of worry.”

By Joe Garofoli

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