A Campaign Ad Captures a Movement
Can an appeal to unity win?
Are our politics hopelessly divided?
Is there a way for a politician with a message of unity to break through?
What is the right balance between compromise and convictions?
Do most people just automatically, inevitably rally around the R or the D next to the name on the ballot? Or not?
All these questions are top of mind as we enter the stretch run of a political season in which the future of American democracy is at stake and there are more storylines and potential surprises than in a season of Days of our Lives.
Considering what’s at risk, it’s easy to lapse into cynicism, especially when you see what is happening in Georgia. There, the Republican Senate candidate — former football star Herschel Walker — is being swamped by a tidal wave of hypocrisy around abortion rights. A series of reports from The Daily Beast contend Walker, who claims to oppose abortion in all circumstances, paid for a woman who also is the mother of one of his children to terminate another pregnancy.
Under the old rules of political calculus, this scenario would very likely doom Walker’s campaign. And that still might happen. But for now, most Republican officials are rallying to his cause, because if Walker wins, Mitch McConnell is far more likely to become Senate majority leader. It’s all about raw political power. Not all Republicans are standing by Walker, and according to reporters covering the race, many GOP officials are privately saying this campaign is a disaster foisted upon them by Donald Trump. Yet those are the Republican Party’s dynamics in 2022, and they will persist unless there are mass defections.
Another interesting Senate race is happening several hundred miles to the north in Ohio. There, Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan is, if polls are to be believed, hanging on in a race that in this political environment no Democrat was expected to be competitive. Most prognosticators still expect Ryan to come up short, especially when you consider some of the polling misses in the Midwest in the 2020 election. But that’s not a given.
This dynamic is partly due to the weakness of that Republican nominee, J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy. He once had a pragmatic, centrist image, but he tacked hard MAGA in the primaries and never looked back. He’s doubled down more than a reckless blackjack player.
Vance has proven to be a weak candidate for a host of reasons that we can explore at another time. For the purposes of this discussion, however, let’s focus on why Ryan seems to be outperforming expectations. It seems unlikely that any other Democrat would be doing so well.
Perhaps the Ryan campaign and its messaging can be best captured in a recent advertisement. Please watch it here before continuing (it’s only 30 seconds):
This ad strikes a lot of notes and is effective in creating a certain tone, mood, or “feel.” It is humorous and memorable and gets at a core truth that most adults have hopefully learned — in relationships, with family, colleagues, and especially life partners, there has to be give and take. There has to be a space where we can disagree while still recognizing our common values. There has to be an understanding that our future, and especially that of our children (no matter how much they might roll their eyes at us), depends on finding ways to work together.
Now, we can carry this principle too far. Not all relationships work. Sometimes it’s healthier for all involved to separate. There are some divisions that can never be bridged. It might feel at times that we are now at that point in the United States. But what Ryan is saying is that this may be a reality in our current politics, but it is not true in much of the rest of life. And he is basing his campaign on the premise that a majority of Ohio voters agree.
It’s going to be a tough sell, because, while the Buckeye State used to be a bellwether (there was an old saying, "As Ohio goes, so goes the nation"), that’s no longer the case. Trump beat Biden by eight points in the state in 2020, despite losing the popular vote in the country by more than four points. So Ryan is fighting the odds.
He is betting on pragmatism, on an understanding that we can choose to disagree without being disagreeable, and that we would be better off focusing on what could bring us together more than what is tearing us apart. Everyone who has ever been in a relationship knows there are times when you can escalate or try to find common ground. Ryan says that’s where we are as a country — we can sweat the small stuff or we can recognize that deep down there is a shared love that Americans have for each other and our country. Like a marriage that is going through a rough spell but can pull back together.
Sure, a lot is left unsaid. Most importantly, there are many things that we are fighting over for which there can be no compromise — like the integrity of our elections or civil rights for all Americans. Yes, there are many voters who have followed the Trumpification of the Republican Party into an extremist position on those issues. But is that enough to win elections? Even in Ohio? Will the pull of Republicans rallying to the party prove the deciding factor? Or can Ryan upset expectations?
We will learn a lot about this country and where we are from what happens in Ohio, in Georgia, and nationwide on election night. But if we can rally around common sense and shared values, it might be because of the kinds of appeals being made by Tim Ryan and some others. He and they may lose, but at least they set the right tone for the country with their campaigns.
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