Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. I've been wondering if the Biden White House has been thinking about 1946. Because 1946 was a tough midterm election cycle for Democrats. A year earlier, former VP Harry Truman had taken the reins at the White House after the death of the longest serving American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and it wasn't going well. Heading into the 1946 midterms, President Truman's job approval sank to 33%. The discontent was driven primarily by American frustration with the economic conditions of the country post-war.
Truman wasn't well-liked. The economy was faltering and the effects in the midterm elections were real. Republicans snatched the house from Democratic control for the first time since 1930 ending the supermajority which had made possible the late President Roosevelt's ambitious domestic political agenda. Just have to wonder if the Biden White House is thinking about 1946. After all, President Biden is also a former VP and national polls show President Biden with an eerily familiar Trumanesque approval rating in the mid-30s.
In 1946, the country was emerging from World War II with a tattered economy. Today, the economic challenges are coming on the heels of a brutal battle against a global pandemic. You just have to wonder if the Biden White House is thinking about 1946. If they are, maybe it's worth noting that two years after losing the house in the midterm elections, Harry Truman did indeed win reelection.
Democrats did retake the house and the expansion of America's post-war economy in following decades remains the global model of economic power. You just have to wonder if the Biden White House is thinking about 1946, and if they are, what lessons they're taking from that history. Joining me now is Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist, and director of the public policy program at Hunter College. Thanks for joining us, Basil.
Basil Smikle: Thank you. It's good to be with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Maria Teresa Kumar, founding president of Voto Latino. Great to have you with us, María Teresa.
María Teresa Kumar: It's been too long. How are you?
Melissa Harris-Perry: It has been too long. Basil, I want to come to you on this. What is the White House thinking about these days? If it is 1946, I'm totally amazed, but what are they thinking about these days?
Basil Smikle: Well, they're obviously thinking about those approval ratings that you mentioned and the frustration that really has gone across the country in terms of their inability to get some of their key pieces of legislation done. Look, the infrastructure was done. That's great and was wonderful, but the Build Better legislation, climate change was mentioned earlier.
There's so many pieces of legislation that are yet to be done and they must be thinking how vexing it is that essentially one member of the Senate has blocked just about all of their key pieces of legislation in Joe Manchin. That's not just difficult for them to deal with as a White House, particularly Biden, who was a colleague of Manchin, but also Democrats across the country are frustrated that the White House can't seem to get around this guy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I get it, I get the frustration, but Basil, the President is not on the ballot. As much as there are these national polls, it's also true that midterm elections are not chosen by a national popular vote. Heck, the President isn't even chosen by a national popular vote. I guess I'm wondering, on the one hand, we started in 1946 because there are these important historic trends about a president's party losing seats in the midterms and those approval ratings do track in some important ways. Part of what I'm wondering isn't there a strategy here that isn't relying on the White House being at the center, given that this isn't a presidential election here?
Basil Smikle: That's been a concern of mine for a long time. If I go back to all of these conversations around critical race theory, we can obviously have a little conversation about that. I think about the fact that there are almost 14,000 school districts in this country and that issue is being argued like this hyperlocal level. To me, what Democrats should have been doing all along is fighting these battles at this hyperlocal level. At the same time, Democrats have historically had this cycle-to-cycle strategy as opposed to this 10-year, 20-year strategy that the Republicans have had.
The other side of that coin is that, in my view, Biden was not really elected to be a visionary president. He was elected to be a managerial president to get us back to normalcy. When you combine those two things that there isn't this extraordinary passion for this particular president among the electorate, particularly among progressives, as well as this inability to have this larger proactive strategy and consistently fighting on defense, the place that Democrats find themselves today is not only in a defensive posture but now having to put on the shoulders of the President and members of Congress, this task of undoing these extraordinary structural changes that are taking place in our country right now. That is not a midterm strategy, that is a longer strategy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you talk about this longer strategy, María Teresa, I do feel like there is at least a part of the Democratic Party that has been thinking not just in cycle to cycle, but thinking across decades. That is represented in part by Voto Latino and other organizations, thinking also about Steve Phillips, who've been pointing to the dramatic shifting demographic realities in the US and saying, hey, in a decade, in two decades, we in fact if we're going to vote and move hyperlocal, let's move hyperlocal with brown and Black candidates and voters. Let's think about how we do effective, get out the vote.
Talk to me about how that long-term strategy is or is not in play in this midterm for mobilizing and turning out Latino and African-American voters.
María Teresa Kumar: I'm glad you brought it up because I think that right now, it's good that you looked at history to open up the podcast because we just have to look at history even from 2014. When we saw that the Republicans were ahead in the polls when the public was asked who do you want to have control of Congress? They were ahead in the polls of the Democrats by 30 points. Just last week, the New York Times came out with a similar poll, and who would you prefer to control Congress in 2022? It was 41% Democrats and 40% Republicans. We are in a dead heat.
The reason that we're in a dead heat for who has control of the Congress is because the moment that you put MAGA Republican versus a Democrat, people choose a Democrat. It's because of all of what MAGA Republicans represent for these communities where we're seeing a multicultural America rise. It is no longer that you have multicultural contests of Americans fighting on the coast, meaning in Florida, in California and the East Coast, we're seeing this all and the fight for the country in the direction we want to go to in the 21st century, in places like Georgia, in North Carolina and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, in Arizona, and in Texas.
When you look at where the modern-day Jim Crow laws are, they're all in these places where there is a booming population of multiculturalism that really scares the Republican extreme right. That is one of the reasons why I think that these midterms are going to be so much closer because Americans as a whole recognize that this is not business as usual. They are not going to the polls just to vote on inflation, in many cases, as people have predicted.
They are going to go and vote whether or not women have agency over their bodies, whether or not their child isn't protected in schools because of there's no ban on assault weapons. They're going to go to the polls because at the same time, they deeply believe that having racism inside their society is making them literally unsafe the moment they go out the door. This is a very different dynamic.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to come to you on this, María Teresa, because it seems to me that that is the bet. That's the all chips on the table Democrats are doing right now is the notion that far-right MAGA Republicans will either will turn off the electorate, but in a midterm when partisanship is the defining characteristic of voters, and this is like long before the Trump era. We just know these are much more polarized lower turnout elections.
I guess I'm wondering, and I'm pretty skeptical of the notion, perhaps because I live in North Carolina that MAGA Republicans will inherently turn off Republican voters, either keep them from the polls or send them to the other side of the aisle. I'm wondering if in fact actually it will encourage and mobilize and energize a portion of the electorate which is typically not going to show up but would show up in these primaries to vote for very far-right Republicans.
María Teresa Kumar: Again, this is just the polling that we've been doing in battleground states because our concern is, are Latinos going to stay home? Are young people going to stay home? To underestimate how closely young women of color, in particular, are holding this idea that abortion is no longer going to be accessible to them is a huge deal. It's not just about agency over their bodies but it's also making this calculation that all of a sudden, their ability to make decisions for themselves, whether it's to go to school, whether it's to have economic freedom, weighs a lot harder than folks actually realize.
I think one of the challenges is that what we're going to see is, is the administration going to do that final thing? I think on the abortion issue, it's resonating in a big way. We just came in from the field and found that 68% of Latinos in Ruby-Red States believe in abortion access to give you an example. I think that the bigger challenge though is that are they going to follow up on all of their promises?
One of the biggest promises and indicators among young people, in particular, is will there be some loan forgiveness coming into September? Because that's something that the President was campaigning on and campaigned really hard on for young people, in particular. We're looking very closely at the tee leaves. The administration, as of just a few days ago, said that they were asking lenders not to send out invoices for the month of August.
Does that mean that they're going to suspend it? We don't know, but I do think that even for a lot of Republicans, my guess is that-- well, again, what we're seeing in conversations we're having, and I do think that the Trump fever in some ways are breaking when we see Pence going out and campaigning against the candidates that the Trump, the former president propped up, or the fact that we see the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post going against Trump. I do think that there's a fever breaking.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also, I want to come to something María Teresa was saying this idea that the fever is breaking because I've also been thinking about 1998, it was President Clinton's second term. He'd been under this massive investigation relative to Ken Starr on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but his approval ratings were at 66%. The Democrats actually gained seats in the house that year which is just unheard of in a midterm. I guess I'm wondering if these January 6th hearings are not breaking the fever but maybe actually heating it up for Republicans.
Basil Smikle: That is a concern. There was a lot of earlier polling that suggested that it didn't change minds, that the hearings didn't change minds dramatically among Republicans. In recent polling they pretty much stuck to their guns that they may have felt that Donald Trump did, his actions were unethical. A few of them think that it was illegal, but it hasn't necessarily deepened their hate or dislike for the President necessarily.
I think part of the reason for that is that even though the Republicans may not have liked Donald Trump or were particularly happy with a lot of things that he said, he was a means to an end for them with respect to judges, certain pieces of legislation and such. He was a means to an end. I think the one concern that Democrats have had and should have is that even as they play ads to prop up their preferred Republican candidate in states across the country, like Michigan, for example, the concern is that we can't just connect those candidates to the far right to being pro-Trump.
We also have to continue the arc of that narrative and talk about why the Democrats are better for what voters are experiencing in their lives today. That really is the, I think for Democrats right now, the real challenge is just talking about January 6th, is just talking about the attack on our democracy going to be enough. María is right from our earlier points. All of what we've seen coming out of the Supreme Court, all of the challenges to our rights today are extraordinarily motivating factors for Democrats.
We just have to make sure that we are doing what Georgia did a couple of years ago, which made them so important to the Biden victory, which was challenge every seat everywhere, something that parties had not been able to do previously, but I think Georgia laid a foundation for that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: María Teresa, what is it that Democrats have on their agenda that is better for American lives than Republicans? You started by talking a bit certainly about reproductive justice, issues of student loans. Issues don't always show up on the table in midterms but are there some issues that really could work in this case?
María Teresa Kumar: I think that the realignment that we're seeing in American politics is a flipping of where the battleground states were often considered the Midwest. It's happening very much in the south now. It is Georgia, it is North Carolina, it is Arizona, it is Texas. We could park Florida somewhere else for right now. It's because of this growing community that is diversely young and industry bringing in young professionals. Georgia is a perfect example, and I completely agree that we have to make sure that on the Democratic side, we cannot take any seat for granted because when you do, you leave opportunity on the table.
Just in Georgia to give you an idea, when you talk about industry, you have the tech industry, you have the entertainment industry, you have farming, you have tech, you have major airline hubs. As a result, you're bringing in a mixture of professionals that would normally would settle in the Midwest along with a growing young population of Americans that are incredibly diverse, who are aligned with what we would consider Democratic values of, I don't have to convince a young person that climate change is real, they know. I just have to convince them that if they vote on the progressive side for candidates who believe in policy change, that we can actually see daylight.
One of the things though that we found very striking in the work that we've been doing in the last 18 months, since the presidential, a little more than 18 months now, is the fact that a lot of young people, in particular, can't tell you the difference between the Republican and Democratic Party. They think that it's all a wash. That speaks to the inability of the Democratic Party to communicate what they have accomplished in such a short period under Biden.
We went into the field again with people that are from the local communities, explaining that under the Democrats, they passed the child tax credit, that the infrastructure bill was passed, that the COVID relief packages came from them. They were surprisingly not only engaged but we were able to help them understand the difference between the two parties.
Unlike the Republicans who when you say built that wall, whether you like it or not, you know exactly what they stand for. There's still not an understanding of what the Democrats stand for.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We have just a minute. Basil, we talked about messaging here. What about structures? What is DCCC and DNC actually doing to inject resources into these elections?
Basil Smikle: They do have some independent expenditures up and running to really fund a lot of those ads that I mentioned earlier, which are the ads connecting the Republican candidates around the country to Trump and to the far right. I do think that kind of infrastructure is in place and operating well. The concern that I've always had, and this is coming from somebody who used to run a state party that for a number of years, particularly during those Obama years, the state parties just did not have the financing, the resources, the infrastructure to elect the candidates down ballot.
It's something that I talk about all the time, state and local elections are so incredibly important. That's one of the things that we need to really push with our young people, not just to support the party apparatus but to support those local elections.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Basil Smikle is a Democratic strategist and director of the public policy program at Hunter College and María Teresa Kumar is Voto Latino's founding president. Thank you both for joining us.
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