Politics

Is This Really the Democrats’ Plan for the Midterms?

DCCC chair Sean Maloney explains.

Clouds hang over the Capitol dome at sunset
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The conventional wisdom is that Democrats will lose the House next year. The midterms usually punish the people in power, President Joe Biden’s approval rating has been heading in the wrong direction since September, and Democrats expect redistricting to give congressional Republicans an edge. On top of that, last month’s elections were full of bad omens for the Dems: They lost the Virginia gubernatorial race, pulled out a real squeaker in New Jersey, and saw suburban voters turn back toward the GOP post-Trump.

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These are not a good set of facts if you are New York Rep. Sean Maloney, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Maloney about how his party hopes to turn things around, what to take away from the Republican win in Virginia, and how much the Democrats should be reminding voters about Jan. 6. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: I know the DCCC has found widespread support for Biden’s proposals and that you’re encouraging members to run as Biden Democrats, basically embrace the agenda here. Do you worry that support for those plans may have cooled as voters look at what’s happening with inflation?

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Sean Maloney: No, I think that what is happening is that people are frustrated that things aren’t better yet, and that’s rooted largely in the pandemic, but it has obviously major economic implications as well. And you see this spilling over into things like frustration with your kids’ school and the other things that have been impacted during this terrible time we’ve all lived through. But I don’t think for a minute that investing in universal pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old in America is going to be anything but a huge win for working- and middle-class families. I mean, think about the child tax cut, big tax cut for families like the one I grew up on. Seven percent cap on child care expenses for working families. How about $2,000 cap on prescription drug costs for seniors or paying 35 bucks for insulin instead of hundreds? That one thing will change thousands and thousands of lives. So I don’t think those things are becoming unpopular. I think there’s an understandable cynicism that we will be able to accomplish them. But we are going to surprise people by actually delivering these results, and then we’re going to do something Democrats don’t often do: We’re going to tell people we did it.

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I worry it’s going to take years and years for some of these things to actually touch people. Your election’s next year. Can it make a difference if my child care subsidy isn’t going to reach me for four more years?

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Well, that’s the tension in the story, isn’t it? When you’re making history, you need to make it in time to do some good if you also want to gain politically. But it’s the best thing for our country to show the kind of leadership that the president has shown, that the House Democrats are showing, in tackling climate change, in going after the remaining population that doesn’t have health insurance in this country and getting it to them, in terms of investing in our infrastructure for the 21st century but doing it in a way that is more resilient and that tackles the climate crisis, in actually attempting to save our democracy through protecting the right to vote. Those are all things that we are proud of because there are real problems that need addressing.

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The other side, again, seeks to exploit frustration around those problems for political gain. We have a plan to fix them. And it’s my job to make sure that when we get them done, we go out and sell those results to the American public. Can’t do it without the president, and I’m thrilled to see the president out on the road selling the infrastructure bill. I think that’s part of the solution.

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But I look at what just happened last month and I think the Republicans were really successful at distracting from all of those achievements. They came up with this strategy of exploiting parents’ fears about education in the wake of the pandemic, exploiting their fears about what their children were being taught about themselves—and I look at the focus on infrastructure. It doesn’t tap into the emotion the way a strategy like that does. So I wonder if you think about that, about how do we make this feel like something for the voters that’ll make them turn out?

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Well, that’s why I’m so proud that the president is now out connecting with the American people, because I think when Joe Biden speaks about the struggles of working- and middle-class families, there’s nobody better. And he gets me every time when he talks about what those families go through, what they talk about and worry about. He understands that in his bones, and that is an emotional story. That’s where people make the American dream work or not, for themselves, for their kids. And that’s what we’re doing right now, is we are building a bridge to the future for the kinds of families a lot of us grew up in that are wondering if there’s a future or not.

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And I think when you’re achieving results, when people feel it and see it—and that’s important, you’ve got to get it done—and then you’re communicating effectively, well, that’s when those cynical arguments that are based around fear or frustration or exploiting people’s darkest thoughts or running those racist strategies—and that’s what they are, around the critical race theory or trying to say something about defunding the police—I think that’s when those strategies start to look pretty hollow and ineffective.

But I feel like once you’ve tapped into those emotions—the fears around race, the fears of socialism—it can become like a cloud that blocks you from seeing other things that are happening and can prevent you from seeing the argument in front of you that a Democrat might be making. So how do you suggest that representatives take on those arguments about race and how we talk about it in this country in a way that’s productive and wins versus ignoring it? Because I worry when you’re focusing on infrastructure, you may not be talking about the elephant in the room.

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Well, look, I understand what you’re saying, and I do think sometimes Democrats have a big switch and it goes from dreaming to depression and there’s nothing in between. We are tackling big, important problems that are facing our country, and we should be proud of that. We have to do a better job of communicating, no argument from me, but we have to know what we’re up against. I mean, look, you’re talking to a gay guy with an interracial family in a Trump district, right?

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I know. I imagine these arguments are quite personal for you.

Well, I didn’t win it five times by hoping for the best. So you’ve got to have a plan to win. But what I’m telling you is that that plan has to be rooted in a record of results, which you can put up against those arguments that are based on fear or hatred or racism. And you have to tell a story. I do think that that story is important, that we have a vision for the future. We can all fit in that vision, that there is a way to bring the whole country forward where we can be more prosperous and more inclusive than we have ever been. We don’t have to be at each other’s throats. We don’t have to succeed at someone else’s expense. That there is a way for us all to grow into a better country. And telling that story in a way that working- and middle-class families, whether they live in Appalachia or they live in the Bronx, can identify with is second nature to Joe Biden, when he starts to remember what he went through growing up. And so I just encourage him to keep doing it. I think it’s very powerful. I think it’s one of the reasons he won the election. I think we will all fall in behind him with that message.

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Many observers chalked up the Republican victory in the Virginia governor’s race to a triumph of messaging. In the race’s waning days, the GOP candidate, Glenn Youngkin, embraced a “parents’ rights” message that converted free-floating anxiety about education during the pandemic into a potent political weapon. So how do you fight that? If you were running that gubernatorial campaign, what would you have done differently?

All right, I’ll tell you honestly. I think they should have attacked Youngkin earlier on education. Terry McAuliffe was a great education governor, and he should have owned that issue.

He launched his campaign at a school.

That’s right, and they should never have let Youngkin get ahead of them on that issue. I think [McAuliffe] also said a really unfortunate thing in the debate, which allowed Youngkin to capitalize on it.

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But in addition to that, I do think, in fairness to Terry McAuliffe, it’s a hard thing to win in an off year in Virginia. History has shown that. He’s also trying to win a second term as governor, which is also unusual in that state. And I do think that Youngkin was allowed to have it both ways. He was allowed to play footsie with Donald Trump and the darkest forces in the Republican Party, but he was able to play a moderate, reasonable business guy in the suburbs. And we’re going to make their congressional candidates choose which lane they’re trying to run in.

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How do you do that?

You hold them to account for what they’ve done, and here in Congress, that’s quite a bit easier. When we’ve got a bunch of people leading the charge up here who deny the results of the last election and who are spreading conspiracy theories like QAnon or quackery around the pandemic, we’re going to hold them accountable for that. So they have a record up here, which is of opposing the most important things that are helping local communities out there, helping first responders and cops and investing in infrastructure. And we’re going to hold them accountable for that.

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How much do you think these candidates should be talking about things like Jan. 6, threats to our democracy?

Look, you can’t ignore it. And when you’ve got a bunch of people here trying to justify or look the other way when there was a violent attack on the Capitol to set aside the peaceful transfer of power, that’s important to remind people about, trust me. They’ve got real exposure on that and they know it. You better believe we’re going to hold them to account for the things that are indefensible around what they’re trying to do around Jan. 6, things like QAnon, things like voting rights, trying to ban abortion in all 50 states. Those are real issues too. But they are contrast issues. They aren’t the lead argument, which is we did a lot of good things and you’ve got to give us some more time to keep them going.

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You’ve said before that you want to make the case that the Democrats are the hope guys and the Republicans are the hate guys. But I feel like to make that case, you have to be really aggressive in pointing out where your opponents are going wrong. And I wonder if you think Democrats are being as aggressive as they should be when it comes to calling out Republicans for some of these antics you’ve mentioned. Like we just saw Rep. Paul Gosar get censured. But then last week we saw Rep. Lauren Boebert joking about how Ilhan Omar is a terrorist and kind of riding that wave from her supporters. Do we need to be clamping down harder, partially because it might make your job easier?

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Well, I’m the last of five boys in an Irish Catholic family, so my default switch is aggression. I mean, I’m all for being aggressive about holding these Republicans to account. But I want to play chess, not checkers, and I don’t want to chase Lauren Boebert around every stupid thing she says. We would do nothing else. And I don’t want to feed somebody’s Twitter followers, business model, or whatever they’re doing instead of Congress. Because even though it’s important to speak up for right and wrong, it can’t detract from what really is the issue, which is, is this economy better or not? Are people going back to work and making more money? Are people feeling good about what they’re paying at the pump and how they can get stuff when they want to go Christmas shopping for their kids? Is the pandemic in the rearview mirror or not? That is where we are going to live or die, not just as a country, but as a political party. And I want to keep focused.

But we are speaking at a moment when the Supreme Court is considering whether they’re going to allow restrictions on abortion access in Mississippi. I wonder how you’re thinking about that decision and how it might impact your job when it comes to the midterms.

Well, first, I think it would be terrible for our country. There is an affirmative argument for what we have done as Democrats, what our priorities are—investing in roads and bridges, investing in our families and our health care, ending the pandemic, getting big things done. And then there is a contrast with the other party, which right now, as you point out, is seeking to ban abortion in all 50 states, that is playing footsie with white supremacists, that is trafficking in conspiracy theories like QAnon. Those are some dark and ugly things. And I think the Supreme Court’s action, which is real, and which builds off of what is already happening in Texas and other states, is a wake-up call that there will be consequences if you let the Republicans win back power.

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