Can Democrats Make the Midterms About Republicans?

October 21, 2021

Everyone knows the saying, which has been attributed to Otto von Bismarck: “Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.” This year, President Biden and Democrats in Congress have led a grisly, excruciatingly long tour of Capitol Hill’s legislative process and somehow expect the public to find the sausage served appetizing.

In the just over five months since Biden proposed the hard-infrastructure-oriented American Jobs Plan and the social-spending and safety-net-oriented American Families Plan, we have seen the legislative process unfold in about as unappealing way as imaginable.

In anticipation of the upcoming, one-year-before-the-midterm-election marker, hundreds of articles will be written attempting to reconcile the fact that the Democrats’ ambitious legislative agenda—called “transformational” by some and described by others as expanding cradle-to-grave programs—follows an election in which Democrats won the presidency only by the skin of their teeth. In a landslide election, introducing an aggressive agenda could be seen as Democrats following through on an electoral mandate, but in Biden’s case, Democrats captured the Senate by the barest of margins and came incredibly close to losing their House majority. Biden, who came in fourth place in the Iowa caucus and fifth in the New Hampshire primary, winning the nomination because he was not Bernie Sanders (or Elizabeth Warren)—and winning the general election because he was not Donald Trump—hardly came out with a mandate, and neither did his party.

If this were a poker game, it could be said that this year, with such a grand set of plans, they bet the house on a pair of 3’s.

Pushing a Franklin D. Roosevelt- or Lyndon B. Johnson-sized agenda—without the massive House and Senate majorities those two presidents’ parties enjoyed—is more than just a misreading. Some, most recently on NBC’s Meet the Press with Chuck Todd last weekend, have suggested that the desire to emulate the two titans from the Democrats’ past may have stemmed from a two-hour private meeting on March 2 with a small group of noted presidential historians, when Biden was reportedly urged to be big and bold, or as some characterized it, “go big or go home.” The irony of course, would be if the history made from those decisions earlier this year was for Biden to become the fifth consecutive president to lose both House and Senate majorities during their White House tenure.

It is also hard to believe that FDR or LBJ would remain stymied as long as Biden has by a faction of their own party, holding legislative hostage one of the two signature spending packages that actually had a chance of being enacted as written. The AJA hard-infrastructure package, focused on concrete, steel, bricks, mortar, electric grid, and broadband, had (note past tense) a real chance of passing largely intact, and potentially with at least some support (at least initially) from a few Republicans. Now, no matter what its size and configuration, Democrats would be lucky to get more than a handful of GOP House and Senate votes, at best.

The Progressive Caucus—with more than a few relatively junior members, including a leader who has never had the “privilege” of experiencing or witnessing up close the loss of a House majority—has prevented Biden from putting a big win on the scoreboard in a way that the points would actually count. Instead, progressives are holding out for the social-spending package, one that actually contains many worthwhile programs but that even some Democrats oppose and therefore has little chance of becoming law as written. Now, whatever is ultimately accomplished on both packages will be so devalued as to likely have little political benefit for Biden or Democrats.

All of this has had an understandable impact on Biden’s standing. As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently wrote, it is now Biden’s turn to get labeled as the “incredible shrinking president.” A new Gallup poll should be out any day, but as of last month, Biden’s job-approval ratings were 7 to 36 points below those of nine elected post-World War II presidents in September of their first year in office—that is, all but Trump. Biden’s 43 percent approval rating is 9 and 7 points below where Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were at this point, respectively.

It is a decent bet that the winning party next year will not be the party that the election is about. If the midterm election is a referendum on Biden and the Democratic Congress, losing the House would almost be a foregone conclusion; the remaining questions would be whether they would have any chance at all of holding onto the Senate and how deep the holes that they will have dug heading into the 2024 election.

On the other hand, if this election is about Trump and a Republican Party seemingly obsessed by fighting culture wars—clashing with Democrats over symbols and engaging in proxy fights, appealing to a shrinking core constituency—Democrats can win. Central to this scenario would be that, like during the tea-party period of 2010 and 2012, GOP primary voters nominate “exotic” candidates in competitive states and districts, allowing Democrats to somehow hang on.

Trump’s efforts to purge the party of any elected officials who have crossed him is part and parcel of this. Be quite sure that there are already Democratic operatives working on plans to quietly undermine those GOP primary candidates in highly competitive states and districts who are deemed more electable, while boosting the candidacies of others with more problematic pasts or thought to have a propensity to shoot themselves in the foot. Then-Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill did just that in Missouri in 2012, helping the late Todd Akin (who died this month) secure the GOP nomination, an outcome that led to her surprising reelection.

Midterms are almost inevitably about a party and/or party leader in power. If it became a referendum on the opposing party, it would be the first time since 1934, Roosevelt’s first-term, midterm election. At the time, the focal point was still on Herbert Hoover, the president during the stock-market crash of 1929 and the start of the Great Depression.

Midterms are about the president and party that is in power, not one that is no longer in charge. But these might be the only arrows in the Democratic quiver.

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