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What the Democratic Party could have done differently in the midterms

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Tonight or tomorrow or maybe weeks from now, the balance of power in Congress will be decided. And that's something both Democrats and Republicans are already planning for, come what may. So we wanted to hear from strategists on both sides of the aisle about how they hope their parties lead the country in the new year. Elsewhere in the program, we'll speak with a Republican. But now we turn to Democratic strategist Joel Payne, who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. Welcome.

JOEL PAYNE: Thank you so much for having me.

NADWORNY: So what's the temperature of this party today? Like, how confident are Democrats about their chances?

PAYNE: Well, first off, your listeners probably know Democrats are famously a little dour and filled with self-doubt, especially on Election Day. I think there are plenty of Democrats who feel like there is a really strong agenda that Democrats have put forward. You look at the Inflation Reduction Act. You look at all the recovery efforts that were made in the first year of the Biden administration - infrastructure, student loan forgiveness, etc. I think that there is a real misalignment in the party between should we be talking about those issues or should we be elevating the democracy issues that we know actually drives enthusiasm with the Democratic base - issues like protecting women's reproductive rights, preventing election deniers and calling out those who are responsible for January 6? I think maybe what a lot of Democrats are experiencing right now is a misalignment between what the office holders and the office seekers are saying and what the base is saying.

NADWORNY: Do you think there's anything Democrats could have done better to sell their vision to voters this election?

PAYNE: Oh, boy, absolutely. And look; one of the challenges that I think Democrats have that maybe does not get enough credit is it's a pretty diverse coalition. Like, you have a coalition that includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Manchin. So you have a pretty wide spans of people from different backgrounds, from different geographic regions that have different interests that matter to their individual constituencies. How do you speak the same language to all of those people and stay consistent? That's hard. That's the work that Democrats have to do. And I think we could certainly probably do a better job of that, not just this cycle but every cycle.

NADWORNY: Can you give me just one example of one thing they could have done better to sell their vision?

PAYNE: Oh, sure. I think it took a long time to get to that Inflation Reduction Act. If you remember, that started off as Build Back Better. It was a long, drawn-out public process. I think we know that typically voters, the general public, does not like to see how the sausage is made. I can speak from personal experience. I also - I worked in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's leadership office about a decade ago. It took a longer-than-expected time to pass the Affordable Care Act. I'd argue that made that piece of legislation less popular when it was finally passed because it took so long and it was so public. I think the same thing kind of happened with the Inflation Reduction Act. If that was being celebrated Q1 of 2022, as opposed to just a month or two ago, which it was, I think Democrats might have had a different story to tell.

NADWORNY: It wasn't a magic piece of legislation that just popped up. Easier to sell when it is.

PAYNE: That's right.

NADWORNY: Election results - they've been fraught since 2010 election. Are you confident the system is going to hold this time around?

PAYNE: I think Democrats typically feel like, the system as it currently stands, there is an opportunity to get it right. I think what worries Democrats is - you know, I talked a little bit about election deniers before. Something like over half of the country is going to have an election denier on their ballot. So if you look at a scenario in 2024 where a lot of these office holders or these offices are held by people who don't believe that the 2020 election was fairly resolved, you have people who essentially just disagree with facts. I think that worries Democrats. So it's less about the election tonight. Yes, there is always a concern about securing the election, but I think going forward, the next cycle or the next two cycles, I think that's what really worries Democrats.

NADWORNY: Democratic strategist Joel Payne, thanks for being with us.

PAYNE: So good to be with you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Handel
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.