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Hey, progressives, it’s time to look in the mirror

Hey, progressives, it’s time to look in the mirror
Annie Gugliotta

He has the look of an aging but determined Rafael Nadal trying to make one last comeback. He heaves his body back and looks poised to crush a forehand, as he has a thousand times before. This time, however, it doesn’t go as expected. To his utter shock, the ball hits the net and limply falls to the ground. “Why?” his look implies. “Why are we losing here?” He resets to try for another point, but he nets it again.

Only this isn’t Nadal.

It’s Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans and current co-chair of Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. Landrieu, like so many progressives looking for another Obama moment, cannot understand why so many people are choosing Trump over Biden. It’s like there is an invisible, Don DeLillo-esque cloud hanging overhead with the words, “How are we losing to him?”

Make no mistake, Landrieu is very good at his job and not only deeply understands Biden’s policies — after all, he helped oversee the trillion-plus-dollar infrastructure bill — he’s also a Biden believer. That means he can’t stand Donald Trump. Or, more precisely, he cannot understand why so many people like the former president.

So here he was, playing the anti-Trump hits on stage in Toronto at our US-Canada Summit to a room that just kept shrugging: 34 felony convictions; sexual assault charge; Jan. 6 insurrection; can’t keep staff; Trump’s own attorney general, Bill Barr, called his claims of a stolen election "bogus.” Periodically, Landrieu would look at the crowd, seemingly exasperated by the lack of emotion, and ask, “Why are we normalizing Donald Trump?” But he never asked the more painful question: “Why are our policies so unpopular?” He was like the aging athlete, baffled as to why he is still not winning.

The Dems’ case against Trump has been made countless times, but it simply is not working. At Eurasia Group, we have the odds of Trump winning at 60%. David Axelrod, the former Obama campaign guru and current CNN political commentator, was with us watching Landrieu. As I wrote last week, I asked Axelrod whether Democrats need to spend more time reflecting on why their policies are not connecting with voters and less time trying to convince people that Trump is a big baddy.

“Absolutely,” he responded, going on to describe how Democrats have lost touch with large swaths of the American public, content with lecturing them in condescending tones about how to be better citizens and “more like us” — meaning the folks who run around Washington telling people what to say and what not to say. Democrats are like the kid in the front of the class with his hand up all the time. He may have the right answers, but no one likes him.

“Strong and wrong beats weak and right,” Axelrod said, repeating a Bill Clinton line. And Biden looks weak. Not only that, Axelrod made the point that Democrats focus too heavily on what they have done in the past, not what they will do in the future.

What’s next beats what was, and progressives are losing on that score. Anew poll from the American Survey Center found that “Nearly six in 10 (58 percent) say America’s best days are behind it. Forty percent say America’s best days are yet to come.” This marks a huge change since 2020 when most Americans were optimistic about the future.

As Daniel Cox writes, while most candidates run on optimism, Trump runs on pessimism because it’s connecting with his large constituency — primarily white male voters. “Forty-three percent of Americans who believe people are not to be trusted have a favorable view of Trump compared to 28 percent of those who say people are generally trustworthy,” he writes. It’s not morning again in America, like under Ronald Reagan; this is Trump’s American carnage, reflecting how many people actually think.

Incumbents around the world are facing “Thelma & Louise” moments right now: If they keep doing what they are doing, they will drive off a cliff. So it’s not just progressives. In the UK, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is already airborne and plummeting toward the ground. Narendra Modi got punished in India. Emmanuel Macron is floundering in France, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in even worse political shape.

A new Ipsos poll done for Global News found that 68% of Canadians want Trudeau to step down. Snowstorms poll higher than that in Canada. “This is as bad as we’ve seen it for Trudeau,”Ipsos CEO Darrell Brickertold Global. “It’s close to rock bottom.”

On June 24, Trudeau will face a major test with a byelection in what has long been one of the safest Liberal ridings in the country, St. Paul’s, in downtown Toronto. The Liberals should win easily, but it’s going to be close, and if they somehow lose, Trudeau will feel more heat than from today’s weather bomb to step down. (Conservatives don’t want him to go, preferring to run against a weakened Trudeau in the next election.)

Still, the point remains: Progressive ideas are not connecting. If the policies were actually working — a case both Biden and Trudeau are trying to make — poll results would look rosier. But they don’t.

Trudeau’s signature tax on carbon to deal with climate change is now a shield — not a sword — issue. His attempt to change the narrative by igniting a class war with his new capital gains tax on the rich has done little to reframe the narrative, but the poorly explained policy has alienated lots of centrist voters. In politics, the old saw “Explaining is losing” has always seemed trite to me — policy often takes time to be understood — but if the explanation is bad, then, yeah, you are losing.

Biden is trying to boost his image by offering undocumented spouses a pathway to permanent US residency and his student loan forgiveness. Both may be popular, but neither has really improved his polling. Why?

Trudeau is facing a change wave, and Biden an age wave, but the issues are deeper than that. The fundamental premise that progressives pitch — that their social and economic policies work to improve people’s quality of life — is losing its plausibility, weakened by inflation, a world in crisis, and a long-term, low-growth environment. Trump may not have solid answers — his self-absorbed victimization narrative lacks facts, optimism, and generosity — but his dark view of the world reflects a mood, and people mistake that for truth. Trump reflects how many people feel; Biden is promising things many no longer believe are possible.

Populism always has an angry protest strain to it, but the response to it is usually clear: Show growth. Build things that work: roads, hospitals, opportunities. Don’t go broke. And finally, get stuff done, and be seen to be getting it done. People have to feel better about their lives. And they are not.

Progressives keep looking in the mirror, and they only see opponents they believe are unfit for office. They have to start seeing themselves and figure out why their promises and policies are not connecting more widely. Self-reflection is hard, but tearing down the other guy only works for so long, especially for an incumbent. They need to reinvent themselves as credible leaders promising something better in the future, not just recycled defenders of their past glory days. They must prove their big new promises are doable in short periods of time. Otherwise, they risk looking like those aging athletes who criticize the skills of the new generation of competitors but keep losing. In politics, the past ain't prologue. It just doesn’t work that way. Just ask Rafa Nadal.


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