Do debates matter? The wisdom handed down to us from America’s political science departments maintains that the answer is not really. All that accumulated wisdom went right out the window in the wake of Tuesday night’s U.S. Senate debate in Pennsylvania. The shock of John Fetterman’s performance seems to have accelerated what was already a building sense of resignation among Democratic political professionals. If morale in the party’s trenches was low before that debate, it has all but collapsed since.
“I know there’s some—I’ll be a little bit graphic here—Democratic bedwetting out there,” said Democratic Pennsylvania Senator and Fetterman surrogate, Bob Casey, in the wake of the debate. That, he said, “is often typical of Democratic commentators and officials.” To borrow the senator’s metaphor, Casey has inadvertently exposed the extent to which he shares his party’s incontinence problem. Trying to buck up his fellow Democrats by disparaging Democratic campaign professionals is indicative of the party’s internal turmoil.
The many Democrats who called openly for internecine warfare as a response to Tuesday night’s debacle were less judicious than Pennsylvania’s senior senator. “He should not have debated,” said one named Democratic strategist in an interview with NBC News. “Anyone on his team who agreed to a debate should be fired, or never work again, because that debate may have tanked his campaign.” The backbiting didn’t end there. “Folks are pretty much freaking out on the Dem side,” another Democrat confessed. “I really question the judgment that he continued with this race,” a third Democrat admitted.
The tacit acknowledgment that Fetterman’s performance may effectively nullify that pickup opportunity in the Senate for Democrats also implies that the GOP’s odds of retaking both chambers of Congress are now at least even, if not better. Couple that with the implosion of the Democratic Party’s frontlines, and you have the makings of a rout.
The party’s committees and PACs are sinking resources into the defense of terrain that is well to the rear of the battlefront. Democrats are pumping funds into congressional races in Rhode Island, Connecticut, California, and downstate New York. The party is defending incumbents from unusually strong challenges in Oregon and Washington’s statewide races. And none of it seems to be staunching the wound, which, to hear Democrats tell it, is self-inflicted.
“One Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid, described a ‘blue-state depression’ for House races,” the Washington Post reported, “pointing specifically to New York, Oregon, and California where a handful of races are ‘closer than normal.’” The causes of that depression are, apparently, all the maladies that the right has associated with Democratic governance for generations. “Some Democrats pointed to fatigue in blue areas over pandemic restrictions, one-party dominance, and concerns about violent crime and quality of life in large cities such as Portland, Ore., New York City, and San Francisco,” the Post’s report continued. In that dispatch’s telling, the debate in Pennsylvania wasn’t the cause of this despondency, but it contributed mightily to it.
If these “precriminations” feel a lot like plain-old recriminations, that’s perhaps because a sense of inevitability has begun to descend on the political landscape. Writing in the New York Times, Blake Hounshell penned what the paper headlined an “alternate history” of 2022.
He asks whether there were “alternate approaches” that “could have put Democrats in a better position heading into the final days.” Congressman Ro Khanna insists the party should have spent more time talking about what it did to “put money in working people’s pockets.” But according to longtime Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, talking up the party’s legislative accomplishments is their “worst performing message.” It communicates to voters that “this election is about my accomplishments as a leader and not about the challenges you’re experiencing.” So that wouldn’t have worked.
Others, such as Bernie Sanders, insist the party should have diversified its portfolio of talking points to include something other than abortion. And James Carville claims the party ceded the issue of crime almost wholly to the GOP. These and other pre-mortem analyses contribute to what Politico’s John Harris deemed “a long roster of here’s-why-we-suck analysis from Democrats.” Whatever the cause of their predicament, there is little left to do now but dig in and prepare for the worst.
The whiplash of this election cycle has surely contributed to this deep bout of Democratic malaise. It was less than a month ago that Democrats were “no longer swimming in desperation.” Republican voters favored flawed candidates, gas prices were going down, and the long-predicted threat to abortion rights had arrived. The Washington Post produced fantastical video packages in which reporters and Democratic strategists imagined the existence of an electorate that would deliver both congressional chambers to Democrats. As recently as October 3, New York Times analyst Nate Cohn devoted serious attention to the notion that Democrats could retain control of both the Senate and the House in November.
It was a false dawn. The hope that Democrats inculcated in their compatriots has turned to ashes in their mouths. It would have been less psychologically devastating had they never had any hopes for 2022 at all. But now that all seems lost, the party has succumbed to melancholy. And who knows? Maybe Democratic voters aren’t as discouraged as their party believes them to be. But the consensus seems to be that an abject disaster is imminent.