Republicans believed they had the winning formula, which was really a regurgitation of an old playbook: Create panic in schools over what “they” are doing to “our” kids, and you win back the suburbs and those White moms who earlier deserted Trump’s GOP in droves.
They tested that play out in the Virginia governor’s race, won a close race they usually win after the other side takes the White House, and from there apparently decided to double down.
Now it’s not just “Critical Race Theory.” It’s gay “groomers,” trans girls on school athletic teams, and “woke” books that need to be excised from libraries.
It’s even about canceling Mickey Mouse.
Two points to note here.
First, the GOP may have seriously overplayed its hand. Attacks on the LGBTQ+ community may be red meat to GOP primary voters, but they are appalling to many Americans who see it as just another form of heartless bullying.
Horror stories of Gov. Abbott actually sending Child Protective Services to investigate families for child abuse because they provided gender-affirming care to their trans kids feel more like Russia than America.
It also turns out that keeping the history of racism in America from even being taught in schools is actually very unpopular among mainstream voters.
And banning or even burning books?
That’s what Nazis and fundamentalists do.
The culture wars, especially in schools, are not generally what American parents want to hear about. Recent nationwide polling shows that most parents are fine with what their children are being taught in classrooms, even on hot button topics.
A whopping 76% of respondents agree with the statement, “my child’s school does a good job keeping me informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics.”
“It really is a pretty vocal minority that is hyper-focused on parental rights and decisions around curriculum,” said Mallory Newall of Ipsos, which conducted the poll.
Just 18% of parents say their child’s school taught about gender and sexuality in a manner inconsistent with their family’s values, and only 19% say the same about race and racism. A mere 14% feel that way about U.S. history.
The result of all these culture war attacks have not been great for the GOP.
In the Washington Post-ABC Congressional preference tracking poll, the 10 point lead enjoyed by the GOP as of last November has evaporated, with the Democrats now polling one point ahead of the GOP.
The shift has occurred almost entirely among independent voters whose opinions notoriously swing wildly.
Washington Post-ABC poll
Second, and importantly, Democrats have begun to take off the gloves and hit back.
The tipping point came from an unlikely source: a Michigan state senator named Mallory McMorrow, who delivered the clarion call in a speech excoriating her opponent for labeling her a “groomer.”
Sen. McMorrow ripped into her for promoting a “hollow, hateful scheme” then showed the Democrats how it’s done:
“So who am I?"
"I am a straight, White, Christian, married, suburban mom who knows that the very notion that learning about slavery or redlining or systemic racism somehow means that children are being taught to feel bad or hate themselves because they are White is absolute nonsense."
"I want every child in this state to feel seen, heard and supported, not marginalized and targeted because they are not straight, White and Christian.”
The video of the speech struck a chord and went viral.
Cable TV late night shows began to call. Jimmy Kimmel did a segment. Even President Biden called McMorrow and thanked her for saying “a lot of what needed to be said.”
Congressional Democrats have been itching to enter this fight, reversing the “When They Go Low, We Go High” platitude of 2016.
“There’s a lot of us that are extremely frustrated with Republicans for doing this but also want our colleagues to be comfortable enough to stand up and defend our values rather than running to some other message or running away from it. I think that’s starting to happen,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
The White House has also recently entered the fight.
“Today, there are too many politicians trying to score political points trying to ban books—even math books,” President Biden said recently.
“I mean, did you ever think ... that when you’d be teaching you’d be worrying about book burnings and banning books? All because it doesn’t fit somebody’s political agenda."
"American teachers have dedicated their lives to teaching our children and lifting them up. We ought to stop making them a target of the culture wars."
"That’s where this is going.”
President Biden also recently took direct aim at Gov. DeSantis of Florida, who has ambitions to succeed Trump as the leader of the GOP. DeSantis (along with others such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas) has lately tried to make the Walt Disney Company a corporate bogeyman out to sexualize our youth.
In a recent speech blasting the GOP as controlled by the far-right, Biden scoffed at these tactics. “They’re going after Mickey Mouse,” he said incredulously.
And at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he put DeSantis in his line of fire again, joking:
"They say it’s not your father’s Republican Party."
"Ronald Reagan said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear this wall down'."
"Today’s Republicans say, ‘Tear down Mickey Mouse’s house!’ And pretty soon they’ll be storming Cinderella’s castle.”
This is a marked shift in tone.
President Biden had promised to seek to find common ground and work across party lines with Republicans. While that resulted in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, since its enactment no significant legislative progress has occurred because of united GOP opposition and the Senate filibuster.
The decision by the White House to attack Republicans over their culture wars gives important permission to Democrats to begin to punch back hard.
The GOP faces a vulnerable few months ahead as their level of complicity with Trump’s attempted coup and the violent insurrection becomes summertime viewing for millions of Americans watching the January 6 hearings.
With school out of session come June, their school-based attacks could feel even more out of touch than they already do.
And their primaries could result in a host of extremists heading their congressional races this fall, putting MAGA and Trump back on the minds of voters who would just as soon never deal with that nightmare again.
Add to that a very likely overruling of Roe v. Wade in late June, and Democrats could be more fired up than ever.
While global inflation may be sucking some enthusiasm out of Democrats and turning independents against the administration, however unfairly, there is no substitute for having a real human target to criticize and attack.
Up till now, that target has been Joe Biden, but come summer and fall, voters may once again realize that the alternatives represented by today’s GOP are even less palatable.
Republicans have opened themselves up fully to the charge that they are dangerous extremists, and Democrats would do well to capitalize on that, starting immediately.