President Biden and congressional Democrats could look back at this year with pride and accomplishment, given their passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the $1 trillion infrastructure package. But instead, the first session of the 117th Congress is now in the history books, and Democrats head into the holiday season deeply demoralized, badly damaged politically, and with real reason to fear that Biden could become the fifth consecutive president to lose both Senate and House majorities on his watch.

PBS/NPR/Marist College national survey out Monday was just the latest in a parade of dismal polls in recent weeks. This was not the ending that Democrats had in mind on Jan. 20.

While there is still a chance that Biden and maverick Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin can reach some agreement early next year for a scaled-down version of the Build Back Better Act, the budget reconciliation package with major social spending and climate-change funding, the reality is that Biden and Democratic congressional leaders badly miscalculated what was realistic given the circumstances of the 2020 election outcome. Not to beat on a dead horse but while so many Democrats are pointing fingers and cursing Manchin, or trashing him to sympathetic reporters, their time might be better spent trying to learn something from this debacle of a year.

Quite simply, if you want to do big things, you have to win elections big. The ambition of a party’s legislative and policy agenda should be commensurate with the magnitude of their victory. A meager victory won with the smallest of majorities demands a more modest agenda. Notwithstanding many worthy elements in what Democrats sought this year, proportionality was not to be found when comparing how Democrats did in 2020 and what they tried to do in 2021.

Biden’s 5-point popular vote win masked the fact that the relationship between the popular and electoral vote has been severed. Democrats running up the score in California and a few other populous states distort the picture about what really matters: the swing states. By that standard, this was an extremely close election, decided by a combined total of fewer than 126,000 votes scattered across four states. That is a long haul from Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson’s 44-state sweeps, with popular-vote wins of 23 and 18 points, respectively.

Looking at Congress, 59 of the Senate’s 96 seats were occupied by Democrats when FDR took office. LBJ had 68 out of 100. Democrats had 313 seats in the House for FDR, 295 for LBJ.

For this Congress, Democrats won their 49th seat on Jan. 5 with Raphael Warnock’s win of just under 94,000 votes over Kelly Loeffler in one Georgia runoff. The 50th came days later, as Jon Ossoff was declared the winner, by just under 55,000 votes over David Perdue. This is about as underwhelming as Senate majorities come.

The 221 seats that Democrats have in the House represents a 13-seat loss in the 2020 election. Their very majority was saved by fewer than 32,000 votes in five districts. Simply put, this was a very ambiguous election result and not one from which to claim a mandate.

So where are Democrats now? This past Saturday morning on SiriusXM’s The Trendline with Kristen Soltis Anderson, my colleague David Wasserman told the host, a highly regarded Republican pollster, that a net Democratic loss in the House of between 20 and 40 seats was quite possible. The Senate is far too murky to even hazard a guess.

When our daughter was very young, probably just 4 or 5 years old at most, and acting somewhat out of sorts, someone asked her what was wrong and she replied, “I just feel a little pissy.” A foreign-policy expert I spoke with on Monday used that same word. Some Americans are anxious or even fearful. Others are impatient and frustrated. Still others are resentful or angry. They all want their lives to go back to normal. They bet (narrowly) that Biden was more likely to do that than Trump, yet that has not happened. As Democratic pollster Mark Mellman wrote recently, “It boils down to this: relatively few voters think Democratic policy prescriptions will benefit them. They’re popular—people like them—but voters don’t think the policies will be of much help to their families.”

But thankfully, the holidays are here. This a time when we should all take a deep breath, think about what and who is important, and try to get some balance before we head into what is certainly going to be another tumultuous year. But in case you find the need to dive into politics, let me sign off from 2021 with three suggested reads from a trio of the smartest people in Washington: Republican strategist Bruce Mehlman’s latest presentation, the latest memo on the 2022 midterm elections from Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House Political Director Doug Sosnik, and a presentation by Anderson and her colleagues, Patrick Ruffini and Kai Chen Yeo of Echelon Strategies.

See you next year.

The article was originally published for the National Journal on December 21, 2021.

More from the Cook Political Report

Where History Rhymed and Where It Didn’t
National Politics
AW
GOP won the votes, but not the seats
National Politics
Photo of Charlie Cook