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Here’s the message that wins the midterms for Democrats, if they’re not afraid

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on March 1, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Saul Loeb/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

It hasn’t aired yet, but I want to share with you the political ad that could win the 2022 midterm elections for the Democrats — even with all the doom and gloom about President Joe Biden’s approval rating and all the historical trends that favor the GOP. For reasons that will be clear in a minute, I’m not using the candidate’s name.

The TV spot starts with one of the most dramatic and best-known sound bites in American history: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, proclaiming, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The ad then switches to the candidate, dressed smartly but casually — not in a fleece vest, though! — and sitting in front of a blackboard in a school classroom. He looks into the camera.

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“I want an America where every child learns those words and what they mean,” the candidate says. “That’s why I was shocked when my opponent and other Republicans in our state voted for a bill that would keep American heroes like Martin Luther King [picture of King on the Selma-to-Montgomery march] and Rosa Parks [shot of Parks, sitting on a city bus] out of our schoolhouses. I’m sick and tired of the politicians trying to ban books from our libraries and gag our teachers in their classrooms. That’s not just wrong — it’s straight-up un-American.”

Then, a tone shift as images from the war in Ukraine, including everyday citizens defending their homeland against Russian invaders, fill the screen. “We are all inspired by people around the globe, fighting for their freedom. It’s time we fight for democracy here in the United States. I want to make it easier for you to vote, not harder. Let’s make our schools about learning, not censorship.” The music begins to swell, with emotional frames of voters, kids in classrooms. “I’m running for Congress to fight to protect the American way.”

Golden opportunity: There’s a reason you haven’t seen this TV spot yet, even if you’re a political obsessive like me. It hasn’t been filmed, and — given the tortured history of Democratic Party political thinking and strategy over the last 40 years — it might never be. I made it up, because I think the political party that — for all its well-documented flaws — wants to take the United States forward instead of backward into some Stone Age of white supremacy is missing a golden opportunity to push a message that connects with a majority of Americans.

We all know the conventional wisdom about what is certain to happen when the nation votes in November. The historical precedent is that the party holding the White House gets clobbered, as happened to Donald Trump in 2018 and Barack Obama in 2010 — a notion now cemented by President Joe Biden’s low approval rating and voter unease over high levels of inflation. Yet often the lofty conventional wisdom fails to notice changes at ground level.

The post-2020 census reapportionment process that was supposed to give an added edge to Republicans didn’t actually do that. More important, the current political zeitgeist is radically different than it was during 2021′s off-year elections in Virginia, Florida and other states. For one thing, the news is dominated by shock and outrage over Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine — a constant reminder of Donald Trump and other top Republicans who spent years as Putin apologists, or worse, as well as the risks of authoritarianism over democracy. But perhaps more important, Republicans who saw some gains last year running against education that addresses racism or LGBTQ rights now seem guilty of a major overreach.

Book bans: The extent of that GOP overreach can be seen both in the sheer number of bills that Republicans are introducing in statehouses across America — so-called gag orders about what teachers can say in their classrooms — at a rate of roughly three a day, according to PEN America, as well as outrageous local examples, like the Tennessee school board that pulled the anti-Holocaust graphic novel "Maus" out of the curriculum. Now, there is polling evidence that most Americans don’t like what they are seeing.

Last month, a CBS News poll found resounding majorities of voters oppose any kind of book bans — for example, 83% say that books should never be banned for criticizing U.S. history — and also support classroom teaching about racism or other historical topics, even those with the potential to make some students uncomfortable. Basically, the CBS News respondents acknowledged that America has made some progress on racial issues but also believe that racism persists and that these issues should be discussed in classrooms. That’s very much the opposite of what TV pundits are saying, as well as the trend of GOP governing in the nation’s red states.

There is a tendency, or course, to write off polling data on sensitive topics around race. Aren’t there some voters who say one thing to a pollster and behave differently in the voting booth? But let’s look at the politician who in 2021 became the avatar of the fight over anti-racism education, Virginia’s new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin. Taking office in January, Youngkin surprised voters with some of his extreme actions, which included a Day One executive order aimed at eliminating “divisive concepts” from classrooms, and even a tip line for parents to report on their kids’ teachers. The result? After little more than a month in office, Youngkin is already under water, with just 41% of Virginians approving of his performance and 43% disapproving.

Clearly, there’s an opportunity here for Democrats. The party’s inclination in recent times is to go after voters with a rational appeal rather than an emotional one. In 2022, Democrats’ conundrum is that despite a slew of positive data around job creation and the broad economy, most voters say they aren’t feeling it, and they’re concerned about inflation and high gas prices. In today’s climate, the best pitch for Democrats is an emotional one — that the Republicans are the party of banning books and gagging teachers. Could anything be more against American values, the ones our grandfathers fought for in World War II?

Striking omission: There’s already evidence, unfortunately, that this will be a road not taken by the Democrats. Consider Biden’s approach in his nationally televised State of the Union address Tuesday. Although the speech had its positive moments — spotlighting Biden’s role in building a global alliance against Putin was a no-brainer — it was also marked by missed opportunities. For one thing, in trying to pivot to a bipartisan center, Biden offered next to nothing for the under-30 and nonwhite voters who put him over the top in 2020. But also, the president’s unity message failed to link the issue that’s suddenly on the minds of most voters — the battle for liberty in Ukraine — with the fight to preserve democratic values here at home.

It was also striking, in fact, that Biden made no mention of the traumatic moment in American history — the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill, with new evidence every day that this was a coup attempt — that happened just 14 months ago. That plot was orchestrated by a sitting Republican president to thwart the peaceful transfer of power after losing an election. The new bipartisan vibe apparently requires tossing Jan. 6 down a memory hole, but that might not be the wise strategy for winning the next election. It may be smarter to tap into the outrage over a party that tried to overturn an election, played footsie with a Russian dictator, and believes it has a mandate for a new McCarthyism.

The so-called Reagan revolution that created a cloud of self-doubt over the Democratic Party was nearly two generations ago. Yet party messaging largely remains dominated by reaction and fear rather than boldness. Those fears seem rooted in a panic that progressive values will be seen as less American — when the reality is that ideas like academic freedom, preventing censorship, and a belief in inquiry, including science, are the core beliefs of this nation. It’s past time for President Biden and other leaders of the Democratic Party to approve this message.

— Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.