I live in a place that supposedly no longer exists: bipartisan America. Over the past half century, the powers that be have steadily redrawn congressional districts to make them more partisan, and therefore easier to win. At the expense of good government, Republican districts have been packed with more Republicans, while Democratic districts have been stuffed with more Democrats. Truly purple districts are a vanishing phenomenon. Let me tell you about mine.
The Kansas 3rd Congressional District covers the western side of metropolitan Kansas City. It’s purple not because everyone who lives here holds moderate views. It’s purple because we have a genuine diversity of views, arising from a wide diversity of life experiences. The district has wealthy enclaves and impoverished zones; working-class neighborhoods and McMansion suburbs; yoga studios, gun ranges and megachurches. A Democrat held the seat when I moved here in 2007. Later, a Republican had it for eight years. Now, we have a Democrat again.
New districts are being drawn, and I regret to report that the single-party trend continues. We seem destined to have even fewer competitive districts, and thus fewer elected officials speaking for the middle.
That’s too bad, because the mood in the United States would be lighter if there were more places like the Kansas 3rd. You might think a competitive district would be a place of constant political strife — but no. Living around people who think differently turns out to be a bit of a balm. Especially now, as the country marks a full year since the 2020 election. Elsewhere, the nation is tied in knots over 2020. Here, not so much.
For instance: Some of my best friends in the district are Republicans, but I don’t hear a lot of wild claims from them about election fraud. People in the Kansas 3rd know perfectly well what happened with former president Donald Trump last year. He got to people like no one else in memory. He persuaded people to vote for him in record numbers — and fired up even more voters eager to be rid of him. Simple.
In solidly Republican districts, people say things like: How could Joe Biden win? I don’t know anyone who voted for him. Something’s fishy here! I don’t hear that sort of thing in my purple district. Just about every Republican knows people who voted for Biden, including a fair number of their fellow Republicans. Neither the turnout nor the result surprised many.
I also have a lot of swell friends who are Democrats, and they, too, are clear-eyed about what happened a year ago.
Apart from ousting Trump, their party had a lousy election. They lost seats in Congress, barely squeaked out a 50-50 Senate and put a semiretired old plow horse in the White House.
In solidly Democratic districts, people say things like: Democrats control the entire government. We must pass a once-in-a-lifetime progressive agenda — or democracy is meaningless! I don’t hear that around here. Nearly every Democrat in the Kansas 3rd knows that people are leery of the Bernie Sanders left, including a number of their fellow Democrats.
Just look at our member of Congress. Rep. Sharice Davids is a lesbian woman of color — specifically, Native American. But you won’t find her in a team photo of “the Squad.” Instead, Davids was recently seen working with a Republican colleague on a zero-cost bill that might save lives.
The proposed Kelsey Smith Act would require mobile phone providers to ping missing people and disclose their whereabouts in emergencies. It’s named for a young woman who was abducted, raped and murdered, and whose body was missing for days while her provider refused to hand over information that would have helped law enforcement locate her.
In single-party echo chambers, it feels as if all reasonable people agree — except for the alien Other Side, bent on subversion. It stands to reason that representative government ought to be government that agrees with Us.
By contrast, in the last remaining purple districts, people understand that a truly representative government is one that struggles to reflect the entire population.
No party or faction wins all the time. No platform or agenda is entirely adopted. No one is shocked to lose an election. No one gets overconfident when they win.
Here, we scratch our heads over a Republican Party lost in a fever dream of election fraud that never happened, and cringe as Washington Democrats form a circular firing squad over a pie-in-the-sky agenda that they never had the votes to pass.
We fear that a year from now we’ll reach another Election Day to find, again, little to like from either Team Red or Team Blue.
There’s a better way, if only Americans could embrace it. The color purple.
David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.”
The big challenge for Democrats coming out of their loss in Virginia on Tuesday is figuring out how to reinvigorate the voters they need most as they move into next year’s challenging midterm elections.
In 2020, now-President Joe Biden breezed to victory in Virginia by 10 percentage points, which seemed to confirm that the state had turned blue. A year later, however, Democrats faced a serious enthusiasm gap. This was increasingly evident in polls and focus groups leading up to Election Day — and crystal-clear in the result.
Turnout on Tuesday was robust. But unlike in recent years in the state, the larger number of voters favored the Republicans, led by their gubernatorial nominee, former private equity executive Glenn Youngkin.
The governor-elect, a nimble political newcomer, achieved the delicate, gravity-defying balance it took to gin up the Trumpian GOP base without alienating moderate and independent Virginians who populate the suburbs.
He pushed a strong message on the economy and jobs, which exit polls indicate were the top concern of Virginia voters. In doing so, Youngkin offered a template for Republicans in battlegrounds across the country going forward.
True, the Democratic nominee, former governor Terry McAuliffe, made his share of mistakes. But he was also dragged down by Biden’s sagging approval rating and the internecine struggles of the closely divided Democratic majority in Washington that has prevented the party from delivering on its agenda.
Key to Biden’s 2020 win in Virginia and elsewhere were “surge” voters — among them, younger people and people of color — whose revulsion toward then-President Donald Trump brought them to the polls, many for the first time, in 2018 and 2020.
Trump continues to dominate the GOP. He also remains deeply unpopular in Virginia.
But without Trump on the ballot, Democrats are struggling to achieve that kind of motivation with their own supporters, many of whom say they are feeling burned out by politics. Some are disillusioned with the party that controls Washington but is unable to deliver results. Others are more preoccupied with concerns such as the coronavirus and inflation.
Preliminary exit polls in Virginia indicate, for instance, that Black voters accounted for around 16% of the electorate; in 2018, the most recent off-year election for which polling methods are comparable, and a good year for Democrats in Virginia, they cast 22% of the ballots there. About 32% of those who voted this year in the state were 44 years old or younger; in 2018, the figure was 36%.
Youngkin also vastly outperformed Trump among voters who fueled Democratic gains during the Trump era. He did far better with female voters, coming within single digits of McAuliffe; by comparison, Trump lost women in Virginia by 23 percentage points. About 6 in 10 voters with some college education or less supported Youngkin.
Youngkin threw McAuliffe off his game plan, which was to tout his experience as governor from 2014 to 2018, and to argue that competence is what the state needs at a time of stress from the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant economic problems.
But as the race moved into its final weeks, McAuliffe switched gears and flailed as he tried — unsuccessfully, the election results would indicate — to tie Youngkin to Trump.
And at a time when demagoguing over the teaching of critical race theory in schools is roiling school boards (even though the theory is not part of Virginia’s K-12 curriculum), McAuliffe handed his opponent a gift with a gaffe during a late-September debate. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” he declared.
So what now for Democrats? No doubt the election result in Virginia will cause massive consternation within the party. It also could deal a crippling blow to ongoing efforts to forge a compromise on Capitol Hill over infrastructure and social spending.
But one thing is clear: The governing party has developed some serious problems over the past year, and denial will not solve them.
Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics.
The White House and congressional Democrats have tried everything to get a commitment from Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., to what is now a $1.75 trillion Build Back Better climate and social policy bill. They have cajoled him, they have flattered him, they have leaned on him.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tried going over Manchin’s head, addressing West Virginia voters directly, via an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
So far, nothing’s worked. On Monday, Manchin demanded a House vote on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, which he helped write and which has already passed the Senate with a large bipartisan majority. Holding this so-called BIF plan hostage until he accepts the BBB framework President Joe Biden unveiled last week, he said, “is not going to work.”
Maybe they should try listening to him.
Manchin’s remarks made sense, both politically and policy-wise. The essential political argument for BBB is that its individual components — such as universal pre-K or a Civilian Climate Corps — receive strong support in polls. Manchin stands accused of blocking a “popular” bill.
Obviously, a lot of what gives Manchin pause are clean energy provisions, which people in his coal-producing, heavily pro-Trump state dislike even after he got the toughest ones removed. Equally clearly, the BBB proposal tackles long-neglected social needs — albeit a list shortened at Manchin’s behest — which most Democrats pledged to address in their 2020 campaigns.
Yet in citing “historic inflation” as a reason to balk at the spending plan, Manchin showed that he, not House progressives, has his finger on the pulse of the American people — as of November 2021. A Pew Research Center poll in September found that 63% are “very concerned” about rising prices, far more than worry about other issues such as jobs or evictions.
Maybe various components of BBB poll well in the abstract, but a new ABC News/Ipsos poll shows the public has little idea what’s in the latest iteration. What they do know is not attractive: Only 25% think it will help “people like them.” Fewer than half of Democrats — just 47% — said the bill would help people like them..
The White House has conceded the public’s shifting priorities — backhandedly — by touting the bill’s inflation-fighting potential. In response to Manchin, press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday: “Seventeen Nobel Prize-winning economists have said (the bill) will reduce inflation,” though their endorsement letter’s exact words were that BBB would “ease longer-term inflationary pressures,” by boosting productivity.
Which brings us to policy. As between the Federal Reserve’s actions and deficit spending, the former probably has much more impact on inflation. And BBB would have no effect, in theory, if it’s fully offset by tax increases, as Biden has claimed it already is.
Yet Manchin is right when he says BBB in its current form isn’t fully paid for, due to budgetary “shell games” that “make the real cost of the so-called $1.75 trillion bill estimated to be almost twice that amount ... if you extended it permanently.”
His reluctance to sign off — before the Congressional Budget Office has even “scored” its deficit impact — is therefore reasonable. Former Obama White House economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers argued that $1.9 trillion in deficit spending under the pandemic recovery bill adopted in March, in combination with easy Fed policy, would overheat the economy, feeding a price surge. Current trends seem to vindicate his view.
Sanders fired back that the $1.2 trillion BIF isn’t fully paid for either. This is true. Yet the impact on productivity of borrowing to invest in roads, bridges and ports is better understood than that of the social programs in the BBB plan. Certainly, Sanders’s top priority — Medicare expansion for retirees — is current consumption, not investment.
In any case, Manchin says he is open to higher tax rates, including increased corporate taxes; he comes to the fiscal responsibility discussion with cleaner hands, so to speak, than his fellow BBB-hesitant Senate Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who rejected almost any higher rates on individuals or businesses.
A Manchin-friendly approach would have Democrats pass the infrastructure bill and send it on to Biden for a big bipartisan signing ceremony, followed by further talks. The goal would be a gimmick-free, paid-for, 10-year, $1.5 trillion plan focused on perhaps two clearly defined programs that benefit low- and middle-income people — with a higher corporate tax but no state and local tax (SALT) relief for the upper-middle class or $7,500 credits for Tesla buyers.
No doubt such a package would alienate some other Democrats — from Sinema, to suburban House members demanding SALT relief, to ultra-progressives such as Cori Bush, D-Mo., who denounced Manchin’s position on Monday as “anti-Black, anti-child, anti-woman and anti-immigrant.”
If by some miracle it did pass, though, the party could spend 2022 cutting ribbons and bragging about modest but real progress on fiscal responsibility, national unity and economic equality. Actually, it wouldn’t be bragging: It would be true.
Charles Lane is a Washington Post editorial writer specializing in economic and fiscal policy.