In the 2020 election, Republicans enjoyed substantial success in their efforts to demonize Democrats by labeling many as socialists and assailing those seeking to revamp or defund local police departments.
The campaign was helped by the prominence of such party activists as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – both self-styled democratic socialists -- and the failure of its more centrist leaders like presidential nominee Joe Biden to mount an effective counterattack.
Now, as Biden and the Democrats face an uphill battle to retain their congressional majorities in November’s midterm elections, they have turned to a similar strategy, seeking to tar all Republicans as Donald Trump’s extreme acolytes, with or without his name.
Biden set the tone last week when, using the acronym for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement, he attacked “this MAGA crowd” as “really the most extreme political organization that’s existed in American history, in recent American history.”
While there might be some hyperbole in Biden’s comments, two recent developments provide Democrats with ammunition for their contention that the GOP is out of the political mainstream. One is the likely embrace by most Republicans of the impending Supreme Court decision banning all abortions; another is the sweeping policy manifesto by Florida Sen. Rick Scott, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
But the line of attack won’t succeed unless Democrats show more consistency in sticking to a single message than they heretofore have.
In attacking Scott’s “ultra-MAGA agenda,” Biden singled out the Florida Republican’s proposal that all Americans “pay some income tax” as a prospective burden that would cost middle-class Americans nearly $1,500 a year. He said Scott’s plan to terminate all federal programs in five years would undercut seniors’ reliance on Social Security and Medicare.
Scott’s detailed proposals were so politically toxic that most top GOP leaders ignored them. But the senator, who harbors 2024 presidential ambitions, continues to push them.
Though Biden continued that line of attack this week, many other Democrats zeroed in on another unpopular GOP position, their support of the Supreme Court’s impending adoption of a position that most Americans oppose: banning all abortions.
Democrats hope it will spur a massive turnout of women voters like Trump’s election did in 2018.
A new CNN survey taken after the proposed decision leaked last week showed two-thirds of those sampled opposed the Supreme Court revoking the right to an abortion that it approved in 1973.
Nearly three in five said they preferred having their states adopt a “more permissive” abortion policy, rather than a “more restrictive one.” A similar majority favored congressional passage of a nationwide right to abortion.
“I don’t think it’s much secret where Senate Republicans stand on that issue,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told USA TODAY, calling it “possible” the GOP will seek to legislate a nationwide abortion ban.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, orchestrated a vote Wednesday to show that Democrats favor legislation guaranteeing abortion rights and Republicans oppose it. That seems likely to become their attack line, since the GOP position clearly represents a minority viewpoint nationally and even in some conservative parts of the country.
That was underscored by a recent Texas poll showing a majority opposed banning all abortions. Texas Republicans have enacted an array of anti-abortion measures, including the controversial law allowing private citizens to institute suits against any abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
The survey by the University of Texas at Austin showed just 15% wanted all abortions banned. Of the 78% who wanted them allowed under some circumstances, 39% wanted them always allowed, 11% under circumstances other than rape, and 28% only in pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or when the mother’s life is in danger.
The reaction of top Democrats and Republicans also showed the decision’s potential political impact.
Many Republicans avoided discussing the substance of the expected ruling, expected late this month or in June, and instead condemned the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott condemned the “hijacking of a United States Supreme Court decision” and urged the justices to issue their decision promptly.
Democratic rival Beto O’Rourke, moving to make abortion rights the centerpiece of his heretofore underdog campaign, told a large rally in Houston that Abbott was ignoring “the vast majority of Texans” who want to allow every woman “to make her own health care decisions.”
Besides trying to turn the election onto a referendum on abortion, and on the unpopularity of some GOP ideas, Democrats hope to focus on some of the more extreme Republican House members.
One likely tactic is criticizing House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, the likely speaker of a Republican House, for supporting Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina.
Until now, most polling has shown the Democrats in severe midterm trouble, due to Biden’s low job approval and his administration’s difficulties in curbing inflation and stemming illegal immigration. The CNN poll, while showing that the potential Supreme Court decision spurred Democratic enthusiasm, also showed registered voters favor Republicans in the election.
If nothing else, Scott’s memo and the impending abortion decision provide Biden and the Democrats with ammunition to counter GOP attacks on their record.
After all, in politics, as in sports, the best defense is often a good offense.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org