October 21, 2022

Biden and the Dems bet the midterms on controversial proposals


History, particularly over the past decade or two, has given us midterm elections in which the president’s party got its butt kicked from coast to coast. Could it be that the strategies presidents pursue in attempting to mitigate their midterm losses end up exacerbating them? A lot of White Houses frontload their agenda with their most ambitious and controversial proposals — and along the way, antagonize the opposition and alienate independents. 

Are Midterm Wipeouts Self-Fulfilling Prophecies?

The other day, the Wall Street Journal’s Gerard Baker offered the unnerving but accurate observation that America’s now-durable tradition of a midterm wipeout for the president’s party doesn’t necessarily lead to a presidential course correction. To find a president who really adjusted his approach to the job in response to a midterm shellacking, you probably have to go back to 1994, when Bill Clinton brought on Dick Morris for weekly strategy meetings to steer him back to the center in time for the 1996 presidential election.

In particular, the last three midterms had little effect on how Barack Obama or Donald Trump pursued their goals. Those two men weren’t going to let a little thing like losing a House or Senate majority make them alter their style, priorities, or policies.

One reason opposition parties usually gain ground in a midterm election is that the president and his party came into office in a wave, and that wave helped elect subpar House candidates who would never have won in ordinary circumstances. This year is a little different: In 2020 Biden gained the White House as the GOP gained 14 House seats. With a total of 212 House seats and one vacancy in a GOP-leaning district, Republicans began this cycle with just about all the lowest-hanging fruit already picked.

Normally, a new president and a new Congress begin with the knowledge that some of their weakest members — those in the least secure districts — are politically living on borrowed time. Because midterm wipeouts are part of a historical pattern, a new administration feels pressure to get as much done in these first two years as possible. No politically controversial part of the president’s and his congressional allies’ agenda can wait until year three or four. As a result, the presidential agenda gets front-loaded with the most ambitious, most partisan, and often least popular proposals.

Unsurprisingly, the passage of those controversial proposals — such as Obamacare, the Trump tax cuts, or any part of the Biden spending spree other than the somewhat bipartisan infrastructure bill — alienates the opposition and fires up the grassroots of the other party. Independents tend to quickly notice that the new president’s agenda is more partisan and ideologically extreme than the one they thought they were voting for in November. Meanwhile, grassroots members of the president’s party get a good look at how the sausage gets made — recall the “Cornhusker Kickback”! — and find themselves frustrated with half measures and the compromises struck to get bills passed. By the end of year two, almost everyone on the political spectrum finds something in the young administration that disappoints or frustrates them.

Meanwhile, as the new president settles in, he almost always learns that life as commander in chief is a lot harder than it looked on the campaign trail. As a candidate, the president was judged on promises and potential. Now that he’s sitting behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, he’s getting judged on results. And he learns, time and again, that he wildly underestimated the challenges he would face. It turns out that building consensus on Capitol Hill is hard. The global scene interrupts with unexpected crises. Scandals pop up, and cabinet members screw up.

Since taking office, Biden’s had plenty of warnings that his policies and approach to the job were steering his party toward a midterm debacle, from the 2021 off-year elections to his historically low job-approval rating and persistently terrible numbers on the right track/wrong track direction-of-the-country question. As far as we can tell, Biden has ignored these warning signs, convinced that, somehow, he’ll find a way to excite the Democratic base enough to mitigate all of those irked independents and Republicans.

Or maybe Biden intermittently notices he’s not as popular as he thought he would be, but the people around him ensure he doesn’t change course in a significant way. Intriguingly, some anecdotes suggest Biden’s staff is nudging him in a more leftward direction than his instincts would prefer. Remember, the president initially resisted the idea of a sweeping plan to cancel student-loan debt: “The idea that I say to a community, ‘I’m going to forgive the debt…’ — the billions of dollars in debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn and schools my children — I went to a great school. I went to a state school. But is that going to be forgiven, rather than use that money to provide for early education for young children who are — come from disadvantaged circumstances?” But Biden eventually signed on to a $500 billion or so plan, helping out single people making $125,000 or less and married couples making $250,000 or less.

Biden didn’t want to go to Saudi Arabia to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, resisting his staff’s recommendation that he do so for months before finally giving in. That meeting led to the humiliating fist-bump photo and later turned into a debacle when Saudi Arabia and other OPEC+ members snubbed Biden, announcing a bigger reduction in oil production than the U.S. expected — a cut that would help Russia and hurt American consumers. Now Biden, having been made to look like a sucker, is stuck looking for “consequences” to inflict on the Saudis.

But more often, once Biden makes a decision, he subsequently rejects all evidence that he’s made a mistake. In fact, there’s something cyclical about Biden’s bad decision-making. Because he sees adjusting course as a de facto admission that his earlier decision was wrong, he tends to stick with the bad decision or the unconvincing spin, hoping the situation will get better by itself. Inflation is transitory. The border is secure. “Shelves are not empty.” Afghanistan is stable. This weekend, after yet another month of inflation near the 40-year high, he insisted that the economy is “strong as hell.”

So, this coming November, Republicans may well win back the House and Senate and a slew of governorships, with big implications down-ticket, and Biden may still not change course much; he may genuinely believe that “it’s fair to say we’ve got more done in the first two years than — than any president in the past has.” (George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and maybe even George W. Bush and Barack Obama would like a word. And in terms of greatest challenges faced in their first two years, I think Abraham Lincoln takes the gold, with Bush having a strong case for the medals podium.)

One other reason losing control of Congress may not faze Biden much is that, for much of his presidency, he has simply enacted the policies he wanted and dared the courts to stop him. 

Biden did not have the power to make national housing laws, yet he decreed that landlords could not evict deadbeat tenants. He did not have the power to make national medical decisions, yet he ordered every workplace to mandate vaccinations. He did not have the power to appropriate hundreds of billions of dollars to pay off college debts, but he did that, too. The courts have struck down the first two of those flagrant violations of his oath, and only the search for a proper party with standing to sue presents any real risk that they will not strike down the third.

Heck, if Republicans win control of Congress, will Biden even notice?

Today’s Midterm-Election Observations

I notice we don’t hear Democrats talking about the North Carolina Senate race much. This is a state Trump narrowly won and Obama won once, where Thom Tillis won reelection by a narrow margin, and where John Edwards and Kay Hagan won Senate seats.

If Tim Ryan still has a shot in the Ohio Senate race, why aren’t national Democrats willing to spend money on him?

Ryan and his allies . . . complain that national party strategists involved with funding decisions are failing to adequately fund his unexpectedly competitive campaign against Republican J. D. Vance for a seat the GOP is hoping to hold onto in November.

“National Democrats have been known not to make very good strategic decisions over the years,” said Ryan in an interview with The Washington Post. “There’s a frustration among the rank-and-file Democrats that the leadership doesn’t quite understand where we want this party to be.”

A Trafalgar/Daily Wire poll has Blake Masters within one point of Mark Kelly in Arizona’s Senate race.

Democrats still don’t comprehend how bad it is for them. And there’s nothing they can do about it now. Democrats are running on abortion. I’ve said for years that the dirty secret of the Democratic Party is their fear of Roe being overturned, not because they are pro-abortion but because they know abortion will (sadly) remain legal and accessible in almost every state in the nation. The Democratic Party’s greatest fear has been that white, college-educated suburban women would wake up the day after Roe was overturned and realize abortion was still legal in their states. That allows those women voters to focus on dinner table issues — the economy, crime, schools — and drop abortion from first to off the table altogether. That’s exactly what has happened.

Inflation is at Jimmy Carter levels — gas, meat, milk. Crime in cities and suburbs is soaring. Parents have discovered that their public schools are a disaster, even in their high-tax liberal suburbs. “But Trump and abortion!” are not issues being talked about at high school football games.

I don’t want to overhype the odds of a Republican tsunami, but there is this odd disconnect between how much Democratic candidates are emphasizing abortion and how low abortion scores in surveys of voter priorities. And you figure that the overwhelming majority of voters who prioritize abortion in this economic environment already lean heavily Democratic. So the Democrats’ strategy is to try to get enough of their grassroots motivated to vote, to balance out those independents and the motivated Republican grassroots.

An approach like that might save Kathy Hochul in New York or Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, but is it going to save Senate or gubernatorial candidates in places such as Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania? Are there enough Democrats in purple states for the party to just concede independents and voters driven by economic issues? Feels like a really big gamble.

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