/Opinion | Listen to Stacey Abrams

Opinion | Listen to Stacey Abrams



Stacey Abrams on June 25 in Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

ABC News’s Linsey Davis interviewed Stacey Abrams on Sunday, reminding us that with her direct, no-nonsense and can-do attitude, she sidesteps several pitfalls that trip up less skilled politicians.

Abrams is adept at avoiding the false choice:

DAVIS: You know, the polls show that Democratic voters, they’re worried about the economy and health care and immigration and abortion and gun control. It rarely comes up that people are worried about voter suppression. You feel this is more important than those other issues?

ABRAMS: No. I think this is fundamental to tackling those other issues.

The ability to vote is how you tackle climate change. We can’t have climate change legislation simply by wishing it. We have to be able to vote into office our representatives.

It’s a savvy point: Voter suppression not only undermines our democracy and the legitimacy of elected officials; it also changes outcomes. When presidential candidates are asked how they are going to get controversial bills through the Senate, the answer is usually amorphous (I’m going to fight!) or technical (Eliminate the filibuster!). The better answer is that opposition to many initiatives Democrats favor (e.g., gun restrictions, child-care subsidies, green energy) is made possible only when voter suppression and voter indifference artificially boost the percentage of white, conservative voters. There wouldn’t be a Republican majority in the Senate if the electorate looked more like America.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) likes to say that until you fix corruption, you won’t get policy outcomes you want. A clever Democrat should respond that until you make voter registration automatic, voting by mail fully available and barriers to voting obsolete, you won’t get much of what Democrats are proposing.

Abrams also won’t fall into the trap of endorsing gotcha moments or playing the game that an old white guy is needed to beat another old white guy:

DAVIS: I have heard in the black community people saying it’s going to take an old white man to beat an old white man.

ABRAMS: I think that any candidate who is standing for office right now is electable because I believe Donald Trump is eminently beatable.

But he’s not the target. The target is victory for our values.

And so the goal that I have is to make certain we have a candidate who has the right policies, but that we have a platform and a capacity to ensure that the votes are cast and counted, so that that person, male or female, black, white or Latino, becomes the next president of the United States.

DAVIS: But why do you think that Joe Biden’s message seems to be resonating more with black voters than, say, Senators Harris or Booker?

ABRAMS: Vice President Biden is a known quantity. He’s been a part of the national conversation for decades.

What I believe electability means is that you can tell the people not only what you’re going to do but why it matters. And I’m looking forward to the end of this process, so we see who comes out on top.

DAVIS: Do you have any concern about some of his commentary about race?

ABRAMS: I think, if you listen to the whole of what Joe Biden says, it is consistent with Democratic values and always has been.

I think we lose out if we spend so much time focusing on missteps or malapropisms and not focusing on the content. And, right now, every Democratic candidate, I think, is talking about the right things. And that is protecting America, renewing America and ensuring that we are restored in our values and in our standing in the world.

She’s dead right in two respects.

First, there is way too much squabbling over minuscule policy difference and opposition research dumps (e.g., Rep. Tulsi Gabbard going after Sen. Kamala D. Harris) and too little talk about how what they are offering is going to improve people’s lives.

To illustrate: We want to pay teachers what they are worth not simply because it is the right thing to do but because we want to encourage the best and the brightest to enter a profession that pays them a decent living. Any school reformer or education researcher will tell you the most critical thing you can do to raise school performance is to put an excellent teacher in every class. You look at countries that have raised their educational outcomes, and you’ll also see improvement in the pay, status and training of teachers. It’s remarkable that candidates spend so little time explaining what problem they are addressing and why their ideas are better than others.

Likewise, instead of mind-numbing debates over a public option vs. Medicare-for-all (neither is universally understood), candidates need to tell voters what problems they aim to solve (e.g., surprise billing, high drug costs, coverage for people in states without Medicaid expansion). Then they can explain what in their plan will fix it, instead of arguing over abstractions. (What’s the place of private insurance?)

Second, the media insistence on equating electability with gender or race is not only obnoxious; it’s also wrong. Were they paying attention in 2018? A record 36 new women were elected to the House in 2018. We have some powerful data that suggests that white voters and men have lost whatever electability advantage they once had. A report in June from the Reflective Democracy Campaign is illustrative:

We looked at the race and gender of 33,854 candidates up and down the ballot in the 2018 elections, as well as 44,900 current elected officials, and determined who is winning elections in the 21st century. Our findings? Voters are avidly pursuing a democracy whose leadership reflects today’s America, not the Old Boys’ Club too often crowding the table.

There’s no mistaking that white men dominate politics. At 30% of the population, they hold 62% of elected offices at the local, state, and federal level – more than double their share. But while white men may still have a monopoly hold on elected office, they do not hold a monopoly on electability. In 2015, our research found that when they’re on the ballot, women of all races and men of color win elections at the same rates as white men. Running the data on the 2018 elections confirms it: white men’s electability advantage is a myth.

In short, Abrams is an immensely talented communicator because she is logical (problem/solution/persuasion) and because she makes the voters’ problem the starting point for any policy discussion. Maybe Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is fizzling because people are tired of hearing that capitalism is evil; they just want cheaper drug prices. And if candidates really want to light a fire under the electorate and hold Republicans accountable, they’ll make the simple case that Republicans only get the policy outcomes they want by distorting and “fixing” the electorate. Abrams makes it sound simple. And actually, it should be.

Jennifer Rubin

Opinion writer covering politics and policy, foreign and domestic