It was always going to be a bad year for Democrats. Midterms often are for the president’s party. Midterms always are when the president’s approval ratings are in the toilet, his base is demoralized, and the party is suffering from a series of self-inflicted wounds that prevent it from developing anything approaching a coherent message.
It’s not just Sen. Joe Manchin killing Build Back Better just to watch it die, or Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema rolling over so Mitch McConnell can filibuster voting-rights legislation. It’s also Nancy Pelosi own-goaling the lowest-hanging fruit imaginable: bipartisan legislation to require members of Congress to put their stock holdings in a blind trust so they can’t trade on insider information, as many—many—of them have done.
People hate politics because they think politicians are corrupt and incompetent. Most don’t read the fine print. They don’t care that the child tax credit disappeared because of one West Virginia millionaire. They don’t know that Democrats failed to protect voting rights because that millionaire and an Arizona narcissist decided that fealty to a Jim Crow-era procedural anachronism was more important than making sure the votes of Black and Brown people count.
At the mass level, what matters is that stuff costs more, the stock market is tanking, COVID is out of control, schools might close again, and Congress (read: Democrats) can’t get its shit together. In short, Biden promised to return the country to normal. He hasn’t delivered.
Again, there are details and context and caveats aplenty. The stock market has taken a dive this month because of fears about inflation, which is mostly happening because of COVID’s effect on international supply chains, labor, and product demand. The omicron variant is ripping through the country because nearly a third of Americans remain unvaccinated—often in a stubborn act of political defiance—and most Republican-led states have removed masking requirements and other precautions. (The Supreme Court’s right-wing majority also blocked the administration’s efforts to get more people vaccinated.) ICUs are filled with unvaccinated patients, straining the entire health care system.
And with omicron spreading, schools are in precarious positions. Educators are understandably concerned about being stuck in rooms all day with corporeal germ factories. Outbreaks lead to widespread student absences or not enough teachers to cover classes.
But the reasons things are bad matter less than the feeling that things are bad. And the empirically good things—more jobs created in the last year than in the three previous Republican administrations combined—don’t break through the noise.
Biden made a lot of mistakes in his first year. Underestimating how quickly Kabul would fall to the Taliban is certainly near the top, along with his errant confidence that he could get Manchin and Sinema on board with sweeping social reforms. But his biggest mistake—the one I suspect will haunt him this November, and throughout the remainder of this term—is thinking there was an ante-Trump, ante-pandemic normal to return to.
There is no normal. There won’t be so long as one political party thrives on chaos.
In a press conference last week, Biden admitted he’d blown that one: “One thing I haven’t been able to do so far is get my Republican friends to get in the game of making things better in this country. … I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done. Think about this: What are Republicans for? What are they for? Name me one thing they’re for.”
It’s a good question for a party that didn’t bother to articulate a platform in the last election, and doesn’t pretend to have one now. McConnell told a reporter he’d let the country know his agenda after Republicans retook the Senate. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s focus is a culture-war grab bag: repaying grievances against “woke” corporations, social media companies, China, and Democrats.
More than tax rates or any of the complex policy questions that affect people’s lives, culture war issues stick. They are guttural, not intellectual. They speak to how we define ourselves. For the South, Jim Crow was a culture war. For fundamentalists, abortion is a culture war.
For the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, everything is a culture war.
Populist movements run on emotion. Biden, a relic of a gentler time, thought he could compromise with that. He told the country that with Trump gone, that emotion would give way to calmer normalcy. That was never going to happen. Even if Republican elites wanted to play ball, the rabble wouldn’t allow it. But they don’t. The messier the country feels in November, the better off they’ll be in January. So this will be a bad year for Democrats. The only question is how bad. If the pandemic stabilizes, inflation cools, the stock market improves, Manchin gets religion on some form of Build Back Better, and Democrats can both take credit for what’s working and counter Republican culture-war messaging on, they might staunch the bleeding.
“As destructive as the Republican’ slash-and-burn strategy is to democracy, it’s damn good politics.”
I wouldn’t hold my breath. As destructive as the Republican’ slash-and-burn strategy is to democracy, it’s damn good politics.