House Democrats’ Long-Shot Plan to Dodge Disaster

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S1: Can you hear me, congressman?

S2: Yes, I can hear you. Oh, hey. How are you doing? Good. How are you?

S1: I called up Congressman Sean Maloney because I wanted him to give it to me straight about the 2022 midterms. Maloney represents New York when he’s in the Capitol, but he’s also got a side hustle. He’s the chair of the D Triple C.. That’s shorthand for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. So while you and I might worry about the midterms on an amateur basis, Congressman Maloney, he is a pro.

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S2: I hate to disappoint you. It’s not like Michael J. Fox in an episode of the American president, but we are focused like a laser beam on having the right record to run on. And I think that because it’s an ambitious and important agenda, and it’s taken some time to get it across the finish line. You know, we’re paying a bit of a price in the messaging war.

S1: I mean, earlier this year, I know that you went into this closed room meeting with some of your Democratic colleagues. It was late July, and you’re kind of dark like you were like, if we had the midterms right now, we’d lose the House. Is that like how you do a pep talk?

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S2: Yeah. I don’t know if it was a pep talk, but sometimes sometimes it’s important to know the truth.

S1: The truth is, the midterms usually punish the people in power, and the people in power are not doing so hot right now. President Biden’s approval rating has been heading in the wrong direction since September. And Democrats expect redistricting is going to give congressional Republicans an edge. These are not a good set of facts if you are representative Maloney.

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S2: I’m not one of these politicians that that believes in happy talk and making stuff up. And what I was telling them then, is that we need to stick together and accomplish the president’s agenda and we are doing that.

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S1: The problem I see with this message is that the popularity of the Biden agenda just doesn’t seem to be translating at the polls. Last month’s election was full of bad omens for Dems. They lost the Virginia gubernatorial race, pulled out a real squeaker in New Jersey and saw suburban voters turn back towards the GOP post-Trump. So figuring out a message that energizes people. That’s where Democrats seem to be struggling. I mean, case in point, here’s Congressman Maloney explaining his pitch.

S2: If you like good roads and bridges, an economy that’s going to grow and lower costs on everything from health care to child care to prescription drugs. The pep talk is the results is, I guess, my point and and that is that is going to change the political dynamic.

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S1: I don’t know. Are you fired up after hearing that? I wonder if in your role as a campaign strategist, you ever sit back and marvel at your Republican rivals or even think about how to emulate them?

S2: Yes, it’s easier to make. Seems easy. No, it does. I mean, I mean, it seems like my dad used to say, you know, any jackass can kick down a barn and it takes a carpenter to build one. I mean, where the carpenters, right? And they’re the guys kicking stuff over and and they’re looking for sources of frustration and anger. I mean, I think that’s what they do on a daily basis over there. They come in in the morning and they say, what’s really making people angry and how do we exploit it for political purposes? What we do is we come in and we say, how are we going to fix these tough problems?

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S1: Today on the show, can Democrats fix infrastructure and fix their messaging? Congressman Maloney explains what the Democrats are going to do to hold their own next year. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. When you listen to Congressman Sean Maloney talk, it helps to keep in mind that the conventional wisdom is that Democrats are expected to lose the House next year, so if it sounds like he’s not giving an inch, it’s probably because he knows he’s in an uphill battle. What surprises me is that the Democrats don’t seem to be piloting any new campaign messages to rival the ones we’re seeing from Republicans. That’s why I wanted to get the congressman on the phone. I was reading one political writer who put it this way, he was like, you know, if President Trump was in charge right now, looking at the moment that President Biden finds himself in with inflation rising and worries about the economy. He was like, Trump would say the economy is booming so hard that our trucks and our ports can’t keep up with it. And I was like, That is true and a little bit genius. Like, would a Democrat ever say that

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S2: if your point is, we should be more like Donald Trump? I’m going to disagree. I think there’s a better way forward. But if your point is, is that a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on? I understand that’s our challenge. And I’ll be the first to admit that we need to spend a lot more time communicating with the American people about what we’re doing and why. But I also want to sell, not the drive, but the touchdown. We have put the ball in the end zone on a rescue plan for the American economy. On the infrastructure law. We’re about to score a touchdown on and build back better, and those three extraordinary legislative wins will form a record of results that we can communicate around.

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S1: Well, I know that the D Triple C 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?

S2: 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 three and four 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 how about $2000 cap on prescription drug costs for seniors or paying thirty five bucks for insulin instead of hundreds? That’s 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 we’re going to do something Democrats don’t often do. We’re going to tell people we did it.

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S1: Well, I guess I worry it’s going to take years and years for some of these things to actually touch people. And so your elections next year? Can it make a difference? If you know, my child care subsidy isn’t going to reach me for four more years?

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S2: 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. No kidding. Tackling climate change is no kidding going after the remaining population that doesn’t have health insurance in this country and getting it to them. I mean, 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, you know, in actually attempting to save our democracy through protecting the right to vote. Those are all things that that we are proud of because there there are real problems that need addressing. 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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S1: Yeah, you were talking about how you wanted to free Joe Biden and get him out on the road.

S2: That’s right. That’s right. And I think that every day he’s on a factory floor talking to a bunch of hard hats or in a firehouse or driving a new pickup truck is a good day. He should be doing it every chance he gets.

S1: But I look at what just happened last month, and I think the Republicans were really successful at distracting from all of those achievements. You know, they came up with this strategy that in retrospect looks really smart of getting 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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S2: 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 it. He understands that in his bones, and that is an emotional story. That’s where people make the American dream work or not for their, 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. 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 critical race theory or trying to say something about defunding the police. I think that’s when those strategies start to look pretty, pretty hollow and ineffective.

S1: But I guess you and I see it differently because 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 guess I worry when you’re focusing on infrastructure, you may not be talking about the elephant in the room.

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S2: 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. 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?

S1: I know. I imagine these these arguments are quite personal for you.

S2: 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, or 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 can identify with is second nature to Joe Biden when he starts to remember what what he went through growing up. And so I just encourage him to keep doing it. I think it’s very powerful. I think is one of the reasons you won the election, and I think we will all fall in behind him with that, with that message.

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S1: We’re taking a quick break. When we come back, New York Congressman Sean Maloney tells us what Democrats can learn from the Republican gubernatorial win in Virginia and how much time they should spend reminding voters about January 6th. I know it’s not nice to ask a guest to do Monday morning quarterbacking, but I have a lot of questions about what top Democrats think went wrong with that Virginia gubernatorial race last month, when all was said and done, a lot of observers chalked up the Republican victory to a triumph of messaging in the race’s waning days. The GOP candidate, Glenn Youngkin, embraced a parent’s rights message. It seemed to convert free floating anxiety about education during the pandemic into a potent political weapon. So I asked Congressman Sean Maloney, How do you fight that if you were running that gubernatorial campaign? What would he have done differently?

S2: All right, I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you. Honestly, I think they should have attacked young earlier on education. Terry McAuliffe is a great education governor, and he should have on that issue.

S1: He launched his campaign at a school.

S2: That’s right, and they should never have let young get ahead of them on that issue. He also said a really unfortunate thing in the debate, which which allowed Young King to capitalize on it.

S3: You believe school systems should tell children what to do? I believe parents should be in charge of their kid’s education system. Call 30 seconds. So first of all, this shows how clueless Glenn Youngkin is, he doesn’t understand what the laws were because he’s never been involved here and helping Virginia. But it was not it. The parents had the right to veto Bill’s veto books. Glenn, not to the knowledge about it. Also take them off the shelves, and I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out. Make their own decision. You vetoed it. So, yeah, I stopped the bill, but I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach. You know, I get really tired of.

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S2: But in addition to that, I do think that in fairness to to 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.

S1: How do you do that?

S2: You hold them to account for what they’ve done. And here in Congress, that’s quite a bit easier. When we’ve got 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 Q and on or, you know, 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.

S1: OK, I’m going to ask a question and the answer that you give cannot include Trump’s name. Deal?

S2: Sure.

S1: OK, here it is. How do you suggest Democrats put Republicans on the defense?

S2: Well, it’s it’s it’s fundamental. You have to get big things done that help the country and then ask them why they voted against it. I mean, if you want good roads are bridges, you’ve got to vote for a Democrat because the chances are the Republican voted against it. If you like paying 35 bucks for insulin instead of a thousand, will you have to vote for a Democrat because every Republican is going to vote against it? I mean, if you think it’s important, right, that we that we wear masks and that we require people to get vaccinated in critical professions, you can’t vote for a Republican anymore. You got to vote for a Democrat. Hey, if you want your state and local tax deductions back, Democrats got that for you in those competitive suburbs where those local tax burdens are a big deal. In other words, right now there is a record that these Republicans are building that is tough to explain in a swing district. So you got you got to look, there’s a reason some of them are out there trying to take credit for the stuff they voted against. We’re not going to let them get away with that.

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S1: How much do you think these candidates should be talking about things like January 6th threats to our democracy?

S2: 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. six. Things like Q and on 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.

S1: So you think it’s not the lead argument, but I but I know that 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. And I think that’s interesting. But I also 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 if 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 Representative Paul Gosar get censured. But then last week we saw Representative Lauren Boebert, you know, joking about how Ilhan Omar is a terrorist and kind of riding that wave from her supporters. And I think, do we need to be clamping down harder, partially because it might make your job easier?

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S2: Well, I’m the last of five boys, and so, you know, 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 Twitter followers, business model or whatever they’re doing instead of Congress because it can at a point. 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 their pain 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 I want to keep focused. Hmm.

S1: I mean, I know you said you want to focus voters attention on infrastructure. 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.

S2: Well, first, I think it would be terrible for our country. There is an affirmative argument for 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 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 are will be consequences if you let the Republicans win back power.

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S1: So this is this is Slate’s most of our subscribers are pretty liberal, and they live in constant fear that the Democrats are about to blow it. Yeah, what would you tell that listener right now

S2: as they keep faith and get to work? You know, we don’t need hand-wringing and we don’t need bedwetting. I understand the concerns. I share them. But if every Democrat who is worried figured out a plan to help us win, do what you can run for office, help us raise money, go knock on doors, talk to a neighbor. There’s work to do. And and it’s not just a few people in Washington who are going to do this work, but we need your help is what I would tell Democrats. And now is not the time to get bummed out depressed. It’s a time to it’s time to get get to work. And so don’t agonize, organize would be my advice.

S1: Representative Sean Maloney, thanks so much for joining me. Thank you. Sean Maloney is a Democratic congressman from New York. He’s also the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Alan Schwarz, Danielle, Hewitt and Mary Wilson were led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. Then I’m Mary Harris. I will catch you back in this feed bright and early tomorrow.