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Democrats let Biden down. McAuliffe — and democracy — paid the price.

Democrats: Wake up!

And for those who consider themselves lower-d democrats: This is your wake-up call, too.

Democrats in Congress had months to prove that they could legislate, to demonstrate that a government of the people, by the people and for the people could still function despite the creeping authoritarianism, the daily assaults on truth and the conspiracy-minded paranoia.

They let President Joe Biden down. They let the country down. And on Tuesday night, Terry McAuliffe paid the price.

Virginia voters decided not to return him for a second nonconsecutive term as governor, instead electing Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, who ran a Trump-inspired campaign of disinformation, conspiracy theories and race-baiting. It wasn’t terribly close. Republicans were leading in the lieutenant governor and attorney general races, too, and were within sight of a majority in the House of Delegates.

There’s no sugarcoating this loss for Democrats in a state Biden won by 10 percentage points a year ago. But if there’s anything positive in this defeat, it’s that Democrats are hearing this alarm with enough time to mend their ways. If they don’t, Tuesday’s loss will be as nothing compared to the shellacking Democrats will receive a year from now.

The Manchins and the Sinemas on the right side of the Democratic caucus and the Jayapals on the left must recognize that their carping over relative trifles has imperiled an agenda they (and their constituents) overwhelmingly support, and increased the likelihood that the people who brought us the Jan. 6 insurrection will be returned to power in next year’s midterms. The Manchins and the Sinemas and the Jayapals, by making the perfect the enemy of the (very) good, have handed an advantage to an illiberal faction that is stoking White nationalism.

This is not to deny other causes of McAuliffe’s defeat. It’s common for there to be a backlash against the party in power in off-year elections. The Delta variant held back the economic rebound. Pandemic-induced disruptions have fueled inflation.

But clearly Biden was a net drag on McAuliffe. Overall, Virginians disapproved of Biden’s handling of the presidency by a 10-point margin, with nearly half saying they “strongly disapprove” — double the percentage who strongly approved. Nearly 3 in 10 Virginia voters said their vote was meant to express opposition to Biden, network exit polls found, compared to the 2 in 10 who said their vote was to express support for Biden. The economy was by far the most important issue driving Virginia voters, and people who put the economy at the top of their list favored Youngkin by a dozen percentage points.

Had congressional Democrats moved three months ago to enact Biden’s infrastructure legislation and Build Back Better agenda, the huge stimulus within those bills would already be boosting the economy and creating jobs. McAuliffe could have been boasting about clean-energy jobs, broadband Internet for all, better roads, bridges and ports for Virginians and free prekindergarten for all commonwealth kids — much of it paid for by a crackdown on tax dodging by the ultrarich. And the media coverage for the past three months wouldn’t have been about Biden’s failures. We’ll never know whether that would have changed the outcome in Virginia, but it certainly would have helped McAuliffe.

Youngkin’s victory confirms a depressing reality: Trumpism succeeds as a tactic even in the absence of Trump. Though Youngkin nominally distanced himself from Trump (he didn’t mention Trump often or attend events where Trump spoke on his behalf), he ran a classic MAGA campaign, raising racial fear and animus among White voters by scaring them about crime and the phantom menace of critical race theory. He littered the airwaves with falsehoods and falsely implicated McAuliffe in a dark conspiracy theory involving the FBI. Youngkin emphasized the Trumpian trope of “election integrity” and called for an “audit” of Virginia’s voting machines, while Trump and other Youngkin surrogates told Virginians to expect fraud.

It worked. Black, Latino and college-educated Virginians overwhelmingly supported McAuliffe, exit polls showed. White men without college degrees overwhelmingly went for Youngkin. So did Virginians who want to preserve monuments to Confederate generals. Among Youngkin supporters, 3 in 10 said they were not confident that their votes would be counted accurately. Among McAuliffe voters, such doubts barely registered.

Much was made before the election of the “enthusiasm gap” facing Democrats. Actually, Democratic turnout was exceptionally high — but it was even higher on the Republican side. Had congressional Democrats given voters a reason to turn out, that could well have made the difference.

In an address to a joint session of Congress in April, Biden exhorted lawmakers: “We have to prove democracy still works — that our government still works and we can deliver for our people.”

Progressive and moderate holdouts failed to deliver, and on Tuesday night we saw the result. Democrats, you are running out of time to save democracy.

Distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.

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