The American Democratic Party is in trouble
, one year after taking control of the White House and both houses of the U.S. Congress. The party just failed to pass President Biden’s two top legislative priorities, as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia refused to support the Build Back Better package of climate and safety-net measures, and both he and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona rejected plans to approve voting reforms
through a simple majority in the Senate. Meanwhile, the omicron variant has caused record numbers
of Covid-19 infections, and inflation
surpassed 7 percent for 2021. These problems could help Republicans win back control of Congress in midterm elections this November. Biden’s approval rating is lower
than any president since World War II—apart from Donald Trump—at this point in his term, and 5 percent more Americans identify as Republicans than Democrats, a 14-point swing
from a year ago. Where is all this going?
Norman Ornstein is an emeritus scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. In Ornstein’s view, Democrats can’t fully control some of the factors that will determine the outcome of the midterms, such as the pandemic or the economy. But if these factors improve in the next few months, then voters could shift back to favoring Democrats, and most economic indicators—aside from inflation—are heading the right way. The Democratic Party’s strategy, as Ornstein sees it, will be to try to pass individual parts of Build Back Better, such as universal pre-K, through a budgeting process that requires only a simple majority in the Senate. Biden can also issue executive orders to enact new policies, especially on climate, though the Supreme Court could veto them. Despite the string of recent setbacks, Ornstein says, the Democrats remain almost wholly unified behind Biden’s policy agenda. The question, he thinks, is whether and how they can adjust their political messaging ahead of this year’s elections to convince American voters that this agenda has made real improvements in their lives.
Michael Bluhm: How bad is it right now for the Democratic Party?
Norman Ornstein: There’s no doubt, this is a low point.
But let’s not forget the bigger picture. We have Covid fatigue in the U.S. that’s been building since the pandemic started. My sense of the Democrats’ defeat in the gubernatorial race in Virginia
is that even though Republican Glenn Youngkin used critical race theory in his focus on education, Covid was more important, especially with swing voters. Democrats had said, It’s a pandemic, so we have to shut down
—without regard for what the cost would be. They’re going to have a backlash.
We’re at a bad point with the pandemic. We’re not out of the woods and won’t be for a very long time, but if Covid is no longer dominating daily life in the U.S., we’re going to be in a different place. And if that happens before the summertime, the mood of the country may be a little different by the midterms.
At the same time, we have historic rates of inflation. The main cause of this global phenomenon is that demand picked up as Covid began to recede, but the disruptions in the supply chain have created a classic mismatch. One-third of the 7 percent inflation this past year is from car prices, which is a supply-chain problem with semiconductor chips. There has also been some disruption in the supply chain for food.
But if the supply-chain disruptions ease, we could be back in a different place. Forecasters such as Goldman Sachs think inflation this year will be back down around 3 or 4 percent. You could look at this as a glass maybe not half full, but with prospects for getting fuller.
Biden’s big challenge is that he has a 50/50 Senate and a four-vote majority in the House of Representatives. But it’s entirely possible that we’ll see some of the core elements of Build Back Better and some executive action done before the midterms. Elements of voting reform could make it through the Senate, though I can’t say that I’d wager a lot of money on that.
But if you can’t frame the debate and the issues in the way you want, and if your accomplishments don’t resonate with voters, then you’re going to be in big trouble.