The stakes involved in the 2022 mid-term elections can hardly be higher: securing American democracy depends on Democrats’ retaining—preferably strengthening—their hold on Congress. It’s a daunting task and to prevail, Democrats need to improve both on defense and offense.
The 2020 election demonstrated how fragile our democracy is. As Donald Trump tried, by means both legal and illegal, to overturn the results of a free and fair election, only the courts and a thin line of courageous Republican election officials guaranteed that the peoples’ choice prevailed.
Now, both of those key safeguards are weaker, perhaps gone. In March, the US Supreme Court upheld the last lower-court dismissal of multiple Trump-inspired lawsuits charging election fraud. But in July, the same Supreme Court upheld new voting restrictions enacted in Arizona, a move seen as gutting the last vestiges of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act designed to protect minority voting rights.
And many of the Republican election officials who refused to verify Trump’s fraud charges have been threatened, fired or are being challenged for re-election by Trump followers who believe his “Big Lie” that he won in 2020, but that the election was stolen. Meanwhile, 18 Republican state legislatures have enacted laws to make voting more difficult. In some (including Georgia, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, and Arizona), legislators are trying to seize control of election management, including power to replace county election officials or even to decide how a state’s election results should be certified, regardless of the popular vote.
So, the first major reason Democrats must win in 2022 is that Republicans have proved they can’t be trusted to safeguard democracy. Donald Trump owns the Republican party and GOP politicians up and down the line do his bidding, out of fear or belief. To erase any doubt about his disrespect for the Constitution, he tried what amounts to a coup after losing in 2020, pressuring state and federal officials to overturn the results. Then he incited the mob that invaded the US Capitol, some in the throng evidently intent on killing Trump’s perceived opponents (including his own ever-loyal vice president). Despite urgent appeals from GOP Members of Congress, he failed for hours to tell his followers to discontinue their rampage. He still has not conceded defeat—a gross violation of an historic norm.
After the Jan. 6 invasion, Republicans in Congress voted overwhelmingly against impeaching and convicting him for his actions and inaction. And eight GOP Senators and 147 Representatives voted not to certify Electoral College counts submitted by two states (had they prevailed, there would have been more.) Then only six GOP Senators voted in favor of forming a truly bipartisan 9/11-style commission to investigate the insurrection, killing the proposal by filibuster. After Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi established a select committee to conduct an investigation, Republican leaders attacked her as responsible for the riot, falsely claiming she is in charge of Capitol security.
The obvious conclusion is that if Republicans take control of either chamber in Congress, they will not try to do what’s best for American citizens. They will do what Trump tells them, probably starting with trying to undo everything Biden has done during his first two years.
For Democrats to prevail next November, Biden must be seen as a successful moderate-progressive president—one who can defy the historical pattern that presidential parties almost invariably lose seats in their first off-year election.
The last two Democrats who launched major initiatives without GOP support, Bill Clinton (health care reform and tax increases) and Barack Obama (Obamacare and anti-recession stimulus), have suffered historic shellackings—54 House seats and six Senate in 1994 and 63 House and six Senate in 2010. Biden, who has multiple big programs in his policy agenda, has such small Democratic margins in Congress that he cannot afford any losses.
McConnell, who earned the moniker “grim reaper” for blocking Obama, has said he is “100 percent focused” on defeating Biden’s agenda. So far, Biden has succeeded in passing a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package (with no Republican votes). He is trying to work out a bipartisan $1 trillion “physical infrastructure” package. Whether it passes Congress is still up in the air, though at the moment, Senate negotiators and the White House sound optimistic.
If it does pass, it will be in spite of Trump’s telling Republicans to oppose it, saying supporting it means “let(ting) the Radical Left play you for weak fools and losers.” Also, he has threatened primary challenges against GOP legislators who support it.
Republicans don’t like the contents of Biden’s next-up proposal—a $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” program that includes expansion of Medicare, more caregiving for the disabled and elderly, universal pre-kindergarten, subsidized child care, free community college, national paid family leave, and extended child tax credits. And the GOP especially hate the corporate and capital gains tax hikes Democrats propose to pay for it all. So the Democratic plan is to pass it as a “budget reconciliation” measure requiring only Democratic votes.
But this ambitious bill also has problems winning full Democratic support—moderates complain it’s too expensive; progressives, that it’s not generous enough. If they can’t come to terms—or if the price tag seems too high to the public while the benefits will be delayed–Biden and Democrats will suffer politically. As for the rest of Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda—voting rights protections, gun control legislation, immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, LGBTQ protections, helping labor unions—they’ll all be killed by filibuster.
To keep Progressives happy, Biden almost has to pursue these goals. But failure after failure can’t help Democrats politically even if it gives them the opportunity to declare the GOP “obstructionist.” If, next November, the GOP captures one chamber—most likely, the House—whatever Biden can get done in his first two years can’t be undone, but he will get nothing more passed. If the GOP gets control of both chambers, Republicans will try to reverse anything he has accomplished. He’ll have only his veto pen to protect them. Stalemate from 2023 through 2024—and an unsuccessful Biden presidency—could re-elect Trump (or someone backed by him), in which case constitutional norms and respect for election results and the rule of law are again in peril.
Right now, Biden enjoys a 6.4 percent net positive job approval average, according to RealClearPolitics. It’d be a good number for him to carry into 2022—if he can sustain it. Polls on the generic Congressional ballot—asking voters which party they plan to support–also looked good for Democrats, averaging +7 percent, but there were only two polls, and they date back to the spring. Recent polls, though, show the percent of voters identifying as Republicans or GOP-leaning to be dropping. A Pew poll in January found that the GOP had a -22 point favorable-unfavorable rating, Democrats, -3.
Democrats face a GOP in non-stop attack mode, trying to persuade swing voters that Democrats have, in effect, opened the US Southern border to unlimited immigration. Beyond that, Republicans charge that Democrats mean to “defund the police,” letting criminals run amok; mix genders in bath- and locker rooms; spend extravagantly; fuel runaway inflation; and indoctrinate schoolchildren in “Critical Race Theory,” teaching them to hate their country as irredeemably racist.
Republicans will exploit anything that can be characterized as Biden/Democratic failures: rising murder rates, a likely humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as a result of Biden’s total pullout of US troops; a possible lasting rise in inflation. Also, surging COVID hospitalization rates (even if they are largely occurring in GOP-run states where vaccination rates are lowest) and sometimes-confusing federal anti-COVID messaging, plus bound-to-be botches and cost overruns on infrastructure projects.
So what do Democrats need to do to retain (or expand) control of Congress? They need to mount an historically aggressive fundraising, legal, and get-out-the-vote effort to counter historical trends and GOP-enacted voting restrictions in key states. They need to pass as much of Biden’s agenda as possible—and be willing to pare it down if necessary. They need to make it clear (despite GOP and media characterization) that they are not “radical”– not led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “crew” or caving in to “wokeness.”
They’ve got to make sure that tax increases, if they can enact them, don’t (as Biden has promised) increase burdens on the middle class. And they have to ensure that such programs as they enact don’t have negative effects, as extended unemployment benefits in Biden’s COVID relief package did to discourage returning to work.
Biden has a worthy overall goal: to demonstrate to America and the world that a democracy can accomplish good things as well or better than China’s authoritarian system. But he’s got to do a better job of convincing voters it’s important.
And Democrats have to aggressively exploit Republican weaknesses—their absence of any positive agenda beyond winning power; despite pre-COVID economic gains under Trump, the GOP proclivity to enrich the rich and cut benefits for lesser classes; and widespread corruption in the Trump administration unchallenged by his party. Also, Trump’s encouragement of extremist groups and Congressional Republicans’ opposition to learning how the Jan. 6 insurrection was planned and what has to be done to insure it (and other violent acts) don’t happen in the future.
The biggest issue in the campaign, though, is whether the electorate wants to return power to a party whose leaders are in the thrall of a man who has countenanced violence and illegality to keep himself in power. Ultimately, it’s a test of Americans’ trust in democracy.
A version of this article ran in Real Clear Politics.