I was shocked recently to hear a longtime Republican friend say that he was considering changing parties. Not just any Republican—he was nominated by two different GOP presidents and confirmed by the Senate each time, yet he was trying to decide whether he had reached the last straw. There is nothing about the Democratic Party’s leaders or direction that was enticing him to make the fundamental change, and he is certainly no fan of President Biden; rather, he fears the GOP has just gone too far.

Watching political ads of many Republican candidates, listening to their speeches, and reading their statements, one might easily conclude that we are all surrounded by existential threats to our country, ourselves, and our way of life. It is as if:

  • Every woman between the ages of 15 and 50 gets an abortion every year, as an alternative to birth control;
  • the Second Amendment protects our right to own and carry a weapon that has far more in common with a machine gun than a hunting rifle, and that no less of a weapon would suffice in protecting your home from a burglar or other miscreant;
  • that transgender athletes were dominating women’s sports;
  • that kindergarten and elementary school curricula was built around critical race theory and inappropriate literature.

In fact, our political debate is increasingly dominated by synthetic “issues,” carefully constructed to elicit outrage. These are often built around conspiracy theories or isolated events, some taken out of context, which many average Americans will go through a whole lifetime without ever encountering.

Nevertheless, the party associated with this fear-mongering and needless panic is basically certain to gain ground in the next elections. Democrats have effectively thrown the GOP a lifeline, constructing a ladder for Republicans to climb out of the demographic hole that they’ve dug for themselves.

Democrats should face up to the difficult truth that their party is seen as no better and maybe even worse than the GOP. An NBC News national poll conducted last month and released Monday found that while just 35 percent of Americans viewed the Republican Party positively (46 percent negatively, for a minus-11 net rating), the positive rating for Democrats was four points lower at 31 percent (50 percent negatively, for a net rating of minus-19 points).

If we look at the intensity of these approval/disapproval numbers, the picture gets even more grim for Democrats. For Republicans, the 35 percent positive was comprised of 13 percent very positive, 22 percent somewhat positive; the 46 percent negative was 17 percent somewhat negative, 29 percent very negative. For Democrats, the 31 percent positive came from 10 percent very positive, 21 percent somewhat positive; the 50 percent negative was from 17 percent somewhat negative, 33 percent very negative.

President Biden and former President Trump had almost identical personal ratings, Biden with 37 percent positive (17 percent very positive, 20 percent somewhat positive), Trump 36 percent positive (21 percent very positive, 15 somewhat positive). Fifty-one percent of respondents saw Biden negatively—11 percent somewhat, 40 percent very negative. Nine percent saw Trump somewhat negatively; 42 percent very negatively.

One telling sign was that just 16 percent felt like the country was headed in the right direction, down six points from March, while 75 percent felt the country was off on the wrong track, four points higher than March.

My diagnosis? With a country that is evenly, narrowly, and bitterly divided, which gave Democrats the barest of majorities in 2020, it was hardly the time for big, bold, historical, and transformational agendas that could be mentioned in the same breath as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society—both enacted after massive landslides.

Simply put, Democrats misread the 2020 election. With the campaign waged in an almost hermetically sealed environment thanks to COVID-19, as if designed to minimize mistakes, Biden won the general election because he was not Donald Trump.

But in those final weeks of the campaign, after Trump’s disastrous campaign performance in September, the implications of a Blue Wave election started sinking in. Independent voters, on edge thanks to all the talk of defunding the police and a Green New Deal, got cold feet and decided to pull the plug on the Blue Wave, very nearly turning it into a Dead Sea. They voted Trump out in favor of calm and methodical leadership, for incremental change.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Democrats squandered a self-destructive impulse by Republicans. This is not a messaging problem, it is a decision-making problem, and they made the wrong decisions. Mandates are not self-awarded or self-declared, they are earned. Pretending to have a mandate, pretending to have the authorization to do far more than voters sought, will undo even the most self-destructive actions by opponents.

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