With control of both the Senate and the House very clearly on the line, this election has become a contest about which party can more effectively frame this 2022 midterm election on terms favorable to themselves. The default scripting for midterms is as a referendum on the sitting president, particularly if his party is in control of Congress as well. The governing party has full responsibility, total culpability for anything that goes wrong. Making matters worse for the incumbent is the almost ironclad rules that members of a president’s party are less enthusiastic and less likely to vote than those in the opposition party; and that the narrow tenth of the electorate that truly is independent will be their normal fickle selves and develop buyer’s remorse.
Until this summer, this midterm precisely fit into that default position—not a good thing for President Biden and Democrats. Inflation was running at a 39-year high with interest rates climbing. Supply-chain disruptions and labor shortages crimped Americans’ lifestyles and many, if not most, voters thought we were on the verge of a recession.
Up until that point, Biden and Democrats had a decidedly mixed record of legislative accomplishments: a coronavirus package that was much too big overstimulated the economy and exacerbated inflation, and an infrastructure package that was half of what was planned, but nevertheless took seven and a half months to pass thanks to Democratic infighting.
Polls not only showed a distinct Republican advantage in terms of motivation, but also that independents gave Biden very low marks and were very likely to break against Democrats this fall.
Many Democrats had high hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, effectively reversing the almost half-century old Roe v. Wade opinion establishing the right to abortion, would close the enthusiasm gap between the two parties’ bases and tilt independents back toward Democrats.
As it turned out, it was less about Dobbs itself than about what happened next: News story after story reported on “trigger laws” taking effect—previously passed state legislation that effectively prohibited access to abortion, often without exceptions for rape, incest, or severe fetal abnormality.
As explained by Cornell law school’s legal information center, in the 1973 Roe decision, the Court “divided the pregnancy period into three trimesters. During the first trimester, the decision to terminate the pregnancy was solely at the discretion of the woman. After the first trimester, the state could ‘regulate procedure.’ … After the second trimester, the fetus became viable, and the state could regulate or outlaw abortions in the interest of the potential life except when necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.”
CDC figures show that almost 93 percent of abortions occur in the first trimester; late term abortions are defined as those after 21 weeks. With medical advancements, the point at which a fetus is viable has shortened in just over a half-century. The laws perhaps could have been modified accordingly. But what these laws brought was far more than a modest or even moderate tightening of standards, but effectively abolition, or very close to it in most cases. A new Florida ban would start the ban at 15 weeks, but many others are far more restrictive than that.
Democrats, women and plenty of persuadable independents recoiled. The August 2 sound rejection of a referendum that would have allowed the GOP-controlled legislature in ruby-red Kansas to outlaw abortion underscored that the ground had shifted.
Similarly, while inflation is still very high, the rate has lowered and fears of recession have abated, and consumer confidence has ticked up slightly.
A flurry of summertime legislation—a computer chip/competitiveness measure, a law to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, and the reconciliation act with its major climate change and health care provisions served as an antidote to charges that Biden and Democrats could not get anything done.
For over a year, Republicans wanted this election to be about Biden. Until very recently, it was going to be. But then, the January 6 committee hearings uncovered a host of damning new information about Trump and his inner circle, election deniers continued to win GOP primaries, and finally, the FBI swooped in and found a substantial amount of highly classified national security information unprotected at Mar-A-Lago.
The macro situation has changed dramatically over the last two months. Keep in mind, however, that the traditional beginning of the general election season is today, Labor Day, and there are still 64 days until the November 8 election.
Naturally readers of this column will be glued to both RealClearPolitics and to FiveThirtyEight for changes in presidential job approval and the generic congressional ballot, but at this point, the state and direction of the economy seems just as critical.
Most important will be the unemployment reports out on October 7 and November 4, and with inflation suddenly of supreme importance, the two major readings on the cost of living, the Consumer Price Index on September 13 and October 13 and the Personal Consumption Expenditures on September 30 and October 28, with more frequent updates with every visit to the grocery store or passing a gas station. While unemployment is usually the more important political economic datapoint, this year it will be inflation.
Once the framing of the election becomes clear over these closing days and weeks, we’ll have a pretty fair idea of what the general outcome will be.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on August 22, 2022.
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