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What the midterms might suggest
If you had spent the days leading up to the midterm election listening to the pundit class and absorbing an avalanche of questionable polls, you would have been bombarded with the sense that a red wave was building — a stinging rebuke of an unpopular president.
There seemed to be significant indications of a Democratic collapse. Inflation has been high, and people certainly have “voted their pocketbooks” in the past. There is also the matter of historical context: The party out of power almost always wins, and wins big, in midterm elections.
Of course, that is not what happened. You probably know the scorecard by now. Democrats are keeping the Senate and could expand to a majority of 51 if they win the Georgia runoff. There is a big difference in how the Senate runs if you have 51 instead of 50 senators, so that election remains important.
Democrats also did well at the state level. They won governorships in key battleground states: Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. In the latter two of these, they won by large margins. Democrats also flipped some state legislatures.
The party came up short in the House of Representatives, although the fact that it was close should be considered a minor miracle. That Democrats underperformed in blue states, particularly New York but also parts of California — losing districts that Biden had won in 2020 — is causing some finger-pointing and soul searching. Perhaps all the talk of Democrats having no chance in the House according to flawed polls depressed voter turnout?
Regardless, on balance most Democratic Party stalwarts are pleased and relieved by the election results. And well they should be.
On the other side of the political divide, the scene is different. Republicans have been mugged by reality. They lost when they expected to win. Usually the narrative is “Democrats in disarray,” but now the roles are reversed. GOP party leaders know they fielded too many weak candidates. They know that Trumpism has now lost at the ballot box in 2018, 2020, and 2022. You can see them trying to find a way out.
That may be difficult. Trump made the party his own fiefdom, demanding fealty from all. Usually when a president loses reelection, their political career is over. But Trump became only more influential. When it comes to voters who pull the lever for the GOP, should we call them the Republican base or the Trump base? Answering that question will determine the fate of the party for election cycles to come.
There is no shortage of analysis about what went wrong, or right, depending on your point of view. But one reasonable conclusion is this: Extremism lost. America is not a far-right country. It doesn’t have a majority of voters foaming at the mouth over the latest outrage animating the Fox News universe. It values democracy and peaceful transfers of power, thank you very much. It balks at a radical Supreme Court taking away long-held constitutional rights. And it is insulted by candidates unfit for office.
Trump wasn’t on the ballot, but he hung over this election. At the same time, it is too convenient for Republicans to blame him for all of their failures. He is who he is, and he doesn’t try to hide it. That Republican candidates embraced him, that donors have continued to fund the party under his control, that the right-wing media machine trumpeted his divisiveness and bigotry is on all of them.
Several words of caution are in order at this point. Trump and all that he stands for are not yet politically finished. Democrats and all others opposed to Trump and his kind would be foolish to again underestimate him and his would-be successors, as they have in the past. Overestimating the significance of the election just past is a potential danger. And the Democratic Party has its own divisions and weaknesses that continue to make it vulnerable in future elections.
Which now brings us back to the question of what we are to make of the current president. He remains generally unpopular, at least according to the polls (problematic though they may be). Yet he led one of the most successful first midterm performances for a president in decades. He was on the campaign trail a bit but not a lot. And yet he had a consistent message that was mocked by many but seemed to resonate: American democracy is in trouble, and your vote matters.
There is a lot of speculation now about whether Biden will run for reelection. Some of it centers on his age (he will turn 80 later this month). There is also a suspicion that his lingering unpopularity in the polls will doom him. But perhaps Biden is a little better at politics than his critics would like you to believe.
Ultimately, being a successful politician comes down to two questions: Can you win elections? And can you get something done when you are entrusted with power? By these objective metrics, Biden has been, to date, one of the more successful presidents of recent decades. That should count for a lot more than what a chorus of op-ed writers has to say. He deserves to be considered — for at least this moment — a winner.
If you will pardon the pun, perhaps we aren’t just biding time. Perhaps this is Biden time.
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