Joe Biden’s best hope of retaining power is Trump, the ogre under the bed | Michael Cohen
If there is one truism of modern American politics, it’s that good fortune is a fleeting thing. Almost a year to the day after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, his Democratic party was dealt a body blow on election day 2021.
In Virginia, former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe lost to Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, as the Republicans won every statewide race and took control of the state’s house of delegates. In New Jersey, incumbent governor, Phil Murphy, barely held on in a state that went for Biden by 16 points. Meanwhile, the powerful Democratic president of New Jersey’s state senate was defeated by a Republican truck driver who spent a mere several thousand dollars on his campaign.
Does this mean that the bloom is off the rose for Biden and America is on its way to another Trump presidency? It’s too soon to tell, but it does not look great for Democrats, even though the House passed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill on Friday. While social media sizzled with red-hot takes on why the party underperformed in Virginia and New Jersey, the reality is more boring. For 40 years, the candidate of the president’s party has gone down to defeat in Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election. From that perspective, McAuliffe losing in Virginia was the expected outcome.
Moreover, the approval ratings of the president have a trickle-down effect on party candidates and, right now, Biden is deeply unpopular. His approval ratings, at this point in his presidency, are the lowest in modern polling history, save one past president – Donald Trump. That’s not good company to keep.
Since the end of August, Biden has been buffeted by one bad news story after another. The image of ignominious US withdrawal from Afghanistan cast a pall over his presidency and punctured his aura of competence. As Covid vaccinations levelled off, cases again began to rise, forcing many Americans, who believed just a few months ago that the pandemic would be soon over, to go back to masking and social distancing. Meanwhile, in Washington, Democrats bickered among themselves about the size of Biden’s “build back better” agenda, and the president who ran on his ability to get things done in Washington looked like a helpless bystander.
In short, this White House has not had a good story to tell for months and in Virginia and New Jersey they paid the price. But if there is one silver lining for Democrats, it’s that midterm elections are a year away and there is time to right the ship.
For all the sturm und drang in Congress over the president’s massive, multitrillion spending packages, a second major bill is also likely to pass, joining the infrastructure bill.
The second would devote an estimated $1.75tn to much-needed social safety net programmes, including universal pre-kindergarten subsidies for childcare, an expansion of Medicare benefits for senior citizens and Medicare coverage for the poorest citizens and, potentially, billions for the country’s first paid family and medical leave programme. Half-a-trillion dollars are also budgeted for fighting climate change. Passage of both bills will not only thrill Democratic voters but could spur further economic growth.
While September was the worst month for Covid cases and deaths since vaccines became readily available, there was a significant decline in new cases in October. More than 70% of eligible adults are now fully vaccinated and vaccines for children aged five to 11 were rolled out last week.
However, the combination of strong economic growth, a return to pre-pandemic normality and legislative success will not guarantee political success. Indeed, the same traditional political forces that contributed to Democratic underperformance on Tuesday will weigh on the party next year.
Historically, the party in power gets shellacked in midterm elections, losing an average of 26 House seats. With Democrats holding a razor-thin majority in the House, it’s hard to imagine the party outrunning that history. And as much as Biden’s legislative agenda might seem like a winner for Democrats, voters don’t always reward the party in power for getting stuff done, particularly if they don’t feel it. The 63 House Democrats who lost their seats in 2010, months after the passage of Obamacare, can attest to that.
Democrats also face a larger set of structural problems: a constitutional system that favours small rural states (usually won by Republicans); a rival political party that is restricting voting rights and aggressively gerrymandering congressional maps to maintain power; and an energised Republican electorate.
Ultimately, what should perhaps be most disturbing for Democrats about Tuesday’s elections is that their voters came out in droves, but they couldn’t overcome huge Republican enthusiasm.
All this may change in 2022, when Trump will probably play a more prominent role and Democratic candidates can use him as a foil to attack Republicans. In fact, one of the likely reasons Youngkin prevailed in Virginia is that he successfully distanced himself from Trump and made it difficult for McAuliffe to link him to the ex-president. That may be harder to do for Republican congressional candidates, many of whom regularly boast about their support for Trump.
Trump is likely to remain the gift that keeps on giving for Democrats – the living, breathing bogeyman under the bed who keeps their voters up at night. As much as Democrats may want to run on their legislative agenda, the spectre of Trump could be their most effective strategy for maintaining power and is probably Biden’s best hope for re-election. The structural impediments to electoral success will remain, however, particularly as Senate Democrats, led by West Virginia’s JJoe Manchin, seem unwilling to enact the kind of far-reaching political reforms that would undo them. Moreover, the Republicans’ unabashed assault on democratic norms and voting rights is likely to continue. The short-term road ahead for Democrats is rocky.
Still, as John Maynard Keynes famously quipped, in the long run we are all dead and if Trump is the path to Democratic success, so be it. After all, there is one other important truism of all politics – winning is better than losing.