(The Hill) — When Michelle Obama declared “When they go low, we go high” about Republicans in 2016, Democrats generally agreed with the sentiment. After all, the party was up against Donald Trump, a man who seemed to find joy in making personal attacks part of his daily routine.
But nearly six years later, the party that pledged to play nice is fed up. Democrats are tired of being stomped on by the opposition. They hate the public perception of President Joe Biden as a president in peril. And the conservative Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is pushing them past their limits. Going low suddenly seems more appealing, some Democrats now say.
“This is a time to say ‘We’ve had enough. [Republicans] are taking away every freedom we’ve had and we’re full of rage,’ ” said one Democratic strategist. “This isn’t the time to say we’re the honorable party, because that clearly isn’t working.”
Democrats generally have sought to improve Biden’s public image by punctuating bad news with an optimistic tone. But with roughly three months until the midterm elections, they now are encouraging a more forceful approach from Biden on down. “Democrats should be savaging Republicans for destroying people’s lives,” said Bill Neidhardt, a progressive operative who worked on messaging strategy for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
In an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday, Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist who served as a communications adviser to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg during his presidential campaign, said Democrats have to present the midterms as a choice between their party “trying to bring relief to the American people” and a GOP “trying to take away freedoms, like a woman’s right to choose.”
She pointed to key states like Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where the race for the Senate could be decided. Casting the GOP as a party of election deniers and those in favor of a complete ban on abortion with no exception can help Democrats in the midterms. “That is what Democrats need to be screaming from the rooftops about every single day of the week,” Smith said.
A few Democrats point fingers internally, saying there are already some who are not going high. The problem is that those Democrats are going after one another, these voices say. “There are moderates like Josh Gottheimer who are quicker to attack progressive Democrats than Republicans. That’s just straight-up stupid,” Neidhardt said, referencing the prominent New Jersey centrist who pushed to separate parts of Biden’s agenda during negotiations on infrastructure and social spending legislation.
Moderates, however, can see some payoff to bucking the left wing of their party, at least on messaging. And some may also not want to go on a full-frontal attack on the GOP. Democrats in front-line districts have to carefully weigh their rhetoric as they seek to win over liberal and independent voters. What works in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) district may not work as well in battleground areas in Michigan or Arizona.
Perhaps the best example of a Democrat running against his own party comes at the Senate level, where Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) last week effectively killed Biden’s legislative agenda on taxes on the wealthy and climate change by saying he couldn’t support the moves due to inflation. Manchin’s move provoked howls among his colleagues but may go over well in red-state West Virginia.
In recent weeks, Biden has turned up the rhetoric against the GOP, describing parts of the party as “MAGA Republicans” to tie them to Trump. But Biden is generally careful in his wording, saying not all congressional Republicans are part of the MAGA faction, and some prominent progressives want to hear something more forceful.
“Biden likes Republicans more than he likes his own voters,” said Cenk Uygur, an alternative media fixture who hosts the leftist “Young Turks.” Uygur is among a chorus of outspoken voices who have been calling for Biden to use a scorched-earth approach to take on Republicans.
Some are not convinced that Biden—a veteran politician who served decades in the Senate and is known as a unifier—is the right person to make the GOP public enemy No. 1. They see him as attempting to return to an era where attacks on political opponents were civil in nature and deal-making was done through a handshake in private. Biden’s famous “Will you shut up, man?” moment at a September 2020 general election debate against Trump was a rare departure from that standard and got mixed reviews at the time.
“There are several problems with a Democrat attack dog strategy, the foremost being President Biden is ineffective when he uses an angry and combative tone,” said Tobe Berkovitz, professor of communications emeritus at Boston University. “When his temper comes through, his message gets stepped on.”
Democrats calling for a tougher approach argue many Republicans have no such qualms. The GOP has been eager to label the president as ineffective, lazy, corrupt and a liar. They make personal attacks on his family, particularly his son Hunter. Some have even called for him to be impeached.
The Republican National Committee in recent months has circulated email blasts with subject lines like “You Ain’t Safe” in Biden’s America and “Biden’s American nightmare.” One email from May called attention to the record-high inflation rate with the eye-catching title: “Biden’s lies won’t pay the bills.”
What’s there to lose, these Democrats say, in turning up the heat? “If you want to win in November, and Republicans are voting to kill extremely popular bills, then we need to make that extremely clear,” Neidhardt said.