It was clear a year ago, on the cusp of Joe Biden’s inauguration, that even though he won a substantial victory over Donald Trump, his party had underperformed down-ballot. That would mean more states under Republican control, and extremely narrow Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. There would be limits on what could be accomplished legislatively, especially in the Senate, where the Democrats had a majority only because Vice President Harris could cast a tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 chamber.
Yet they had to try. Democrats had not controlled both houses plus the presidency since 2010. They had to try. They did pass a significant Pandemic Relief package early on, and a much needed, bipartisan Infrastructure bill in the summer. But further major accomplishments proved elusive: the sweeping Build Back Better bill that would embody many of Biden’s campaign promises, and major voting rights bills intended to counter voter suppression laws being enacted by Republican legislatures, both were blocked by the Senate’s filibuster rule (requiring 60 votes to cut off debate) and the refusal of Democratic Senators Manchin and Sinema to accept any change in the rule.
At this point congressional Democrats need to forget about their once-in-a-lifetime ambitions and focus on modest, useful initiatives that can actually pass.
As a result of these impasses, the twin foundations of the Democratic base, the educated, affluent Left, and the African Americans, are deeply frustrated. His promises notwithstanding, Biden has not been able to deliver these high priority initiatives. Add to that the incoherence of his immigration policies, which has a third part of the base, Latinos, also unhappy. Biden is in trouble, and more to the immediate point, so is his party in the 2022 midterms.
Enough with quixotic gestures. It’s time to face reality. First, the left wing of the party already controls most of the seats they could ever hope to win. Second, the same goes for African Americans. Third, pending lawsuits, Latinos will probably lose seats because of the egregiously discriminatory redistricting passed by the Texas legislature, which puts most seats in the hands of White Republicans, even though almost all of Texas’ population growth was attributable to Latinos.
If Democrats are to increase their votes and win more Senate and House seats, they will have to do it in the suburbs, which are becoming more diverse but are still predominantly White. These folks swung to Biden in 2020, letting him win states like Pennsylvania. But they still voted Republican down-ballot. Their vote for Biden was anti-Trump, not progressive. Virginia suburbanites gave the governorship to Republican Glenn Youngkin last year. More than anything, it was about parental control of the public schools.
At this point congressional Democrats need to forget about their once-in-a-lifetime ambitions and focus on modest, useful initiatives that can actually pass. That means getting 60 votes (at least 10 Republicans) in the Senate. Even that may not be feasible if Republicans maintain a unified stance of denying Biden any victories. Budget-related bills can be passed via reconciliation, which only requires 51 votes.
On his side, Biden still has extensive executive authority that he could make better use of. He has done pretty well with executive action on environmental issues. On immigration, on the other hand, he has been hamstrung by Trump-appointed judges, but he must get control of the agenda and the message and show that he’s serious about reversing Trump’s inhumane policies. The other two big issues are the pandemic and inflation. There is hope that Omicron infections will decline rapidly as in other countries, and hospitalizations and deaths should follow. If so, that should give Biden a boost. On inflation, ironically, Biden’s best contribution could be the abandonment of the big-ticket items in Build Back Better.
The Democrats’ Bummed Out Base needs to get a grip. The failure to pass more major reforms wasn’t due to Biden not trying hard enough. It was the Democrats’ underperformance in 2020. The answer to that is NOT to punish Biden and the party by staying home in 2022 and 2024, but to do better in attracting voters at all ballot levels.