AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Throughout the Middle Ages, the greatest reason armies lost battles tended not to be strategy on either side or technological advantage. Rather, it was the failure of one side or the other to maintain discipline when their forces were on the cusp of victory. Countless times, an army would very nearly drive their opponents from the battlefield, only to let down their guard, assume victory was in hand, and proceed to loot the enemy’s baggage train or camp. If they were lucky, the only consequence would be to allow their foes to escape unpursued. If fortune were not so indulgent, their scattered and disorganized forces would be easy prey to a counterattack.
The 2022 midterm elections did not go the way Republicans had hoped. Whether the GOP emerges with narrow House and Senate majorities or not, almost everyone expected more. Strikingly, it was not just Republicans who anticipated a “Red Wave.” The tone of Democratic commentators, the spending decisions of Democratic campaign committees, and Joe Biden’s own decision to make himself scarce on election night television, indicated that Democrats also expected a shellacking. So, what happened?
The answers are many. Democrats, the media, and even a few Republicans have pointed to the abortion issue and whether the fall of Roe v. Wade energized voters. It now seems likely that although Democrats’ messaging on abortion was abysmal (taking the unpopular position of rejecting all limits), nonetheless, a portion of the public was likely motivated by the issue despite, rather than because of, the Democrats’ poor messaging.
The same is true of their messaging on other issues. Did Democratic warnings of “democracy in danger,” warnings Democratic strategists themselves believed had fallen flat, actually work? What about education and crime? And if so, and these issues cost the GOP nationally, why did crime perform so well as an issue for the GOP in New York and California? Why did abortion fail to hurt the GOP in Texas and Florida, the former of which, along with Georgia, has a “heartbeat bill”? Why, finally, did a backlash against the GOP’s supposed overreach on education not manifest in Florida this year? Florida was ground zero for education wars, yet a backlash did not occur.
A possible answer lies not in the issues the GOP adopted, but rather the way in which they were messaged, especially as the GOP became more confident in its prospects, watching the Biden administration melt down. Here, it is worth drawing a distinction between a position, which is what a candidate or party proposes on a given topic, and their message. In the case of the Republican Party, there were a host of issue positions, often varying dramatically between candidates. The same was true on the Democratic side. Democrats might argue that stop and frisk does not work and they oppose it, while Republicans support it, but the message that all Republicans had was that Democrats cared more about criminals than about crime.
The distinction between issue and message is important, because in many ways it was on their message, rather than their positions, where the GOP’s issue advantage appears to have vanished, along with the “Red Wave.”
In the 2021 Virginia Governor’s race, Glenn Youngkin famously focused on education and crime in the Commonwealth. His actual positions on CRT in schools and COVID-19 were nuanced, even ambiguous. But his message was clear. Democrats in Virginia were prioritizing ideology over the interests of parents and children. Their focus on equity was coming at the expense of academic quality, in the process hurting real kids. Their concern for abstract social justice and academic theory was causing division and strife among students from different backgrounds. Youngkin promised to take the politics out of schools and put the parents and educators back in.
This was a message that in the first half of 2022, Republicans took national with substantial success, only to abandon it in the second half of the year when they conflated policy ends with the message and ended up undermining the latter with the former. Initially, Republicans focused on removing ideological indoctrination from the schools, whether it be sexual content without parental consent, or political theories regarding race and history. They zeroed in on Democratic efforts to attack merit selection and standardized tests, and the social justice view that, in essence, too many Asian students were doing too well. This message resonated even with Democrats and contributed to the recall of three members of the San Francisco School district.
Republicans were even able to link this message about putting parents and students first to Democratic efforts to extend COVID-19 restrictions beyond their sell-by date. Getting kids back in school and ensuring they were actually educated while there and evaluated on what they did rather than who they were was a message that could appeal to everyone.
Sadly, this was not the message on education that Republicans closed with. Youngkin and Ron DeSantis in Florida had been determined to pose as “Education Governors” who were the defenders of the overwhelming majority of good teachers and parents. But that message soon gave way to a focus among Republican activists on the claim that kids were being “groomed” by teachers and even their own parents into gender confusion. While there was undoubtedly a genuine debate to be had about the propriety of schools having these discussions with children and at what age, the activists and prominent conservatives online abandoned any reasonable message in that regard, and began using words like “groomer,” and hinting that the teachers themselves were pedophiles.
The final degeneration of this message was an obsession with “Drag Queens” and “Drag Shows.” Again, while the phenomenon of “Drag Queen Story Hours” is disturbing, virtually no normal American had been aware of that phenomenon for a reason. Candidates who suggested that the most important issue in education was a pressing need to ban “Drag Shows” in school ended up coming off as bizarre at best. In the final weeks of the campaign, even some GOP gubernatorial candidates were talking this way. Their consultants presumably assured them that the education issue had been a winner for Youngkin in Virginia. Lost in translation was that Youngkin had done it all in a very different way.
Most importantly, the message of parental rights, and the government getting the schools back to teaching was lost. Even if it was a minority of GOP candidates who spoke this way, and a caricatured version of their message, the perception that the GOP wanted to improve education and make it work better for parents and kids was lost in favor of the impression that they were mad at the system.
None of this is to say that these Republicans were not raising important issues. The point is that it matters how you talk about those issues, especially when you are a first time Congressional candidate or Senate hopeful who voters are hearing from for the very first time. Many Republicans, like a medieval army confident in victory, stopped pressing their battlefield advantage and began looting the Democrats’ metaphorical baggage train for the juiciest red meat and most intoxicating morsels with which to own the libs. The Democrats turned around and took full advantage.
This, in microcosm, is what happened to the GOP’s national narrative. The case against Joe Biden and the Democrats is and was quite simple. Due to ideological obsessions, the Biden administration is not serious about government. Its obsession with identity politics and doctrinal fixations led it to hire mediocrities who contributed to failure across the board. Its determination to pay off its key constituency groups led it to spend vast quantities of money fueling inflation. “Green” ideology contributed to high gas prices, leaving America vulnerable to Putin. Ideology prevents the administration from controlling the border or dealing with crime. The Biden administration has put ideology over outcomes every step of the way.
The advantage of this message is that it can appeal even to voters who do not agree with Republicans on every policy issue, by arguing that the Biden Democrats simply do not care to try to govern. It would have been remarkably effective even in Democratic strongholds.
The key to that message was that the GOP had to be serious about government. Leaders as diverse as Greg Abbott in Texas, Ron DeSantis in Florida, Mike DeWine in Ohio, and Brian Kemp in Georgia demonstrated that voters rewarded focus. This had nothing to do with whether they were “Trump-endorsed” or not. Lee Zeldin, endorsed by Trump, did better than any Republican in two decades in New York. He is also pro-life and voted for the Electoral College challenges in 2020. But he showed a serious focus on crime and education and attacked Democrats for their failures on those issues.
Likewise, to the extent the Dobbs decision hurt Republicans, that damage almost certainly had far more to do with the lack of preparation for messaging the aftermath than the decision itself. For hardcore pro-choice voters, Dobbs was clearly a disaster, and for pro-lifers it was clearly a victory. But for many voters, the main feature of Roe had been to allow everyone to focus on other issues. They didn’t want to fight about it, and they didn’t want to think about it. But after the Supreme Court decision, suddenly, officials from Governors and legislators right down to local sheriffs had to figure out what their position was. Many conservatives tried to spin this as an advantage. After all, they argued, didn’t this give more choice to states?
The problem with “choice” is the paradox of choice. Namely, that the more choices anyone has, the more work is involved in deciding between them. In politics, that means more disagreement. Even in cases where agreement existed among voters, such as on late-term abortions, debates had to occur on exceptions, and even if everyone agreed on exceptions, such as for the life of the mother, laws require careful drafting. Liability has to be strictly defined, burdens of proof set, guidelines written. The consequence of Dobbs for many voters was to introduce a complicated issue into every layer of government, and one which had to be resolved immediately, before everything else. An issue which politicians even within the GOP could not agree on.
Even for many pro-life voters, the timing of some of the Republican legislatures’ actions this year was reckless. This new political issue was being inserted into the process in the midst of rising gas prices, exploding inflation, a war in Europe, and a crisis over education. The country was given virtually no time to digest the decision outside the context of a heated election. It would be no surprise if the data ultimately show that abortion passions on Election Day ran high. Even if Democrats bungled the message, Republicans seem to have bungled it even worse.
It is worth noting that one of the commonalities of the states where the GOP did exceptionally well (Florida, Georgia, and Texas) was that all had passed abortion restrictions, but all three had also then drawn a clear line. Having passed those restrictions, six-week heartbeat bills in Texas and Georgia and a 15-week ban in Florida, they made clear they did not want to litigate the nuances of the first six weeks and exceptions, and that the issue was resolved for the year. This was “good government.” They had acted and then moved on. This prevented it from becoming an overriding issue.
In a touch of irony, the Republican Party as a whole might have been better served, for once, by embracing a suggestion of Senator Lindsey Graham: his proposed 15-week federal limit. It would have provided certainty, and allowed every candidate to stand on exceedingly defensible ground. Instead, by forcing a nationwide high-stakes debate on abortion, but one in which Republicans lacked any clear vision for how it should be resolved, they distracted themselves and everyone else from crime and inflation. Then, in their defense of returning it to the democratic process, they had the temerity to argue that legislative infighting and deadlock was something the voters should be grateful for.
These issues mattered on their own. When brought together, they paint a picture of a Republican Party which took the issues on which they had a winning hand, and pursued them to unfortunate extremes by losing sight of the message they were trying to convey to the voters. Having indicted the Biden administration for overseeing ideologically induced chaos, they should not be surprised that the result was a draw, one in which partisans on both sides voted in a partisan manner, and everyone else cast ballots based on their feelings about individual candidates.
The GOP needs to learn from this. Identity politics has badly hurt liberal America and the Democratic Party by fracturing it into warring cliques. The GOP, reveling in premature victory, indulged itself in the same sort of entitled naval-gazing. It cannot afford to make that mistake again going forward.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.