Shipwreck In The Making? A Brief But Harrowing Look At The Midterms

by Michael Liss

Although Mother and Father were not much alike, both were revolted by vulgarity, boastfulness, conniving, and flattery. There was a family understanding that defeat was preferable to viciousness, that one’s achievements must be gained honorably.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

A Shipwreck on a Rocky Coast, Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1775.

I think we would all agree that Singer’s parents had all the right values . . . . and would have made terrible politicians.  

“Fortunately,” we voters are not burdened with too many of the moral, upright types (Gresham’s Law applies to politics as well as economics). We might be “troubled” by vulgarity, boastfulness, conniving, and flattery, but if it comes from our side, not excessively so. This allows us to focus on the more important things, like whether there is a disqualifying, empirically absolute limit to repulsiveness directed at the other side, or a disqualifying, empirically absolute limit to the repulsiveness of the behavior or ideas of one of our own. 

In the 2022 Midterms, we are going to put those “character” questions to the test to a degree not seen in our lifetimes. While we are doing that, we will also be applying some very traditional metrics (like Presidential approval ratings), mixed with newly gerrymandered Congressional Districts where incumbency might not be as meaningful, a thicket of voter-suppression schemes (not all of which may act exactly as intended), and the distinct possibility of a considerable amount of outright cheating. Finally, we will be doing this in an environment of rising skepticism in the ability of our system to survive. The Right has its phalanx of Election Deniers eager for power at any price, the Left the growing sense that it will not be permitted to win (by Secretaries of State, by state legislatures and Governors, and by judges facilitating outcomes), even if it can convince a majority of the electorate. 

Before we get to the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, let’s check in on Joe Biden, the incumbent on trial. First, a little bit of history. When Presidential approval is low, the voters take it out on the President’s party in the Midterms. It’s remarkable how short Presidential honeymoons are. Part of the problem, especially for first-termers after a party change, is that they come into the job burdened with the mess for which their predecessors were voted out. Then they get new messes that inevitably come with the job. Finally, they create some of their own out of ambition and a sense of duty to their party. The “vision thing” is often the hubris thing.

Whither thou goest, Joe?  The tea leaves make for a sour brew right now for the President. His approval rating remains mired at about 40 percent, with tepid support from Democrats and Independents. Republicans hate him with a tribal enmity that is part hormonal, part tactical, and for some, more than a little rueful. Joe Biden Is a decent guy. I know (from experience) that, if I tweet that simple statement, “Joe Biden is a decent guy,” I’ll get berated with a free-speech zest that will warm the heart of Elon Musk. It doesn’t change the fact that Biden is a decent guy.

That doesn’t mean he’s a good President. The skill set that got him elected in the first place—decent, understands politics, steady hand on the tiller, and not Trump, has been tested constantly, and it doesn’t always work. He’s fine (gratuitous mockery of his speaking style aside) at the pastoral role of the Presidency. He’s also done one big thing fairly well: Ukraine. That’s not simple; to get it right politically, Biden must herd two different types of cats. At home, the carping doesn’t come so much from all Republicans as much as it does from a group of isolationists, led by Tucker Carlson, who have embraced Orbanism, have contempt for the Ukrainians, and carry a torch for Putin. That group is influential and obstructionist but doesn’t speak (at least on Ukraine) for the majority of institutional Republicans. Abroad, there is a transformation in thinking regarding NATO. Member states are far more unified and far more willing to provide for their own defense. That is not merely a reaction to Putin’s naked violence; it’s also a sign that Biden and Secretary of State Blinken have been deft in managing expectations (and egos) in Europe. 

Domestically, though, Biden’s stewardship has been decidedly lackluster. It’s not his fault that Republicans threw an extended fit with nearly every possible COVID policy, including vaccinations, but he’s President and it’s his job to see things done better. “Crushing Covid,” which should have been a winner for him, is almost certainly the opposite. 

Inflation, sharply rising prices at the pump, and the baby formula shortage are also huge problems, as is the border. Again, externalities are playing a major role, and Republicans have absolutely nothing to offer besides slogans, but Biden doesn’t seem to have much in the way of either policy responses or political ones. 

Finally, cultural issues are not (yet) being handled with any type of integrated political strategy. Republicans are always “going there” and there doesn’t seem to be a coherent response from the Administration. Biden’s astoundingly low ratings among younger Democratic voters must stem, in part, from a perceived lack of a plan or even a spine. While Republican Governors are out there strutting like peacocks while rolling out new acts of petty cruelty on an almost daily basis, Biden seems . . . silent.

That is the reality of where we stand right now, and, if history is any gauge, Democrats are going to get stomped. The voters tend to hold Presidents, even the great ones, accountable. FDR suffered huge losses in 1938 after the economy dipped into recession and he tried his unpopular Court-packing scheme. That’s only two years after he crushed Alf Landon in one of the greatest landslides ever. Ike, enormously personally popular, nevertheless lost 49 seats in the House and 15 in the Senate, just two years after a dominant reelection campaign against Adlai Stevenson that saw him win the popular vote by more than 15 percent. Closer to our own time, Bill Clinton lost both chambers in 1994 after a failed healthcare effort, and Barack Obama 63 House seats in 2010 after he succeeded, but with a plan that was then unpopular. Both men had won their first terms decisively. Even in our intensely partisan age, Trump lost 41 House seats and control of the chamber in 2018.  What’s really fascinating about those whuppings is that FDR, Clinton, and Obama won reelection (comfortably) just two years after.

It’s not easy to beat the Midterm Jinx when the voters want to send a message. For just how much of a message, and just how big a wave, I’d suggest looking at this Kyle Kondik piece for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at UVA Center for Politics. His work, broken down by results as compared to the President’s performance in the previous Presidential election, sorts actual results by CD two years later. The closer the President’s victory, the more vulnerable the same-party Congressional candidate is two years later. We can see that, as a President’s popularity declines, he takes his House members with him. It’s not a one-to-one ratio—Biden at 40 percent doesn’t mean that Republicans will win 370 House seats (well, one hopes not) but a drag wipes out those in closer districts and endangers those even where the President won, two years before, with a vote share in the mid-fifties. Two other trends: The era of the well-liked local Representative of the other party holding the seat in the face of ill-winds is over. Party is everything. The second: tight districts, where POTUS was at or just below 50 percent, almost invariably flip. Kondik identifies nearly 50 Democratic seats that are vulnerable. Thirteen of those are in the “below 50%” and are highly likely to be lost, taking a Democratic Speakership right with them. 

Maybe this is too pessimistic? There is not one iota of data that indicates that Democrats will outperform. They have trailed in several Congressional Generic Ballot polls. It is altogether possible that their gap is even bigger than polling indicates, because the GOP has been so successful at voter suppression that even the Democrats who are not passive and attempt to vote may be turned away.

You have to rewrite the playbook, and it starts with something that cannot be spoken of: Joe Biden is not the guy to lead a revival. He didn’t win the nomination because of an inexhaustible quantity of charisma. He doesn’t have a deep well of supporters who feel an emotional connection to him. In many ways, he resembles a Convention-chosen candidate of the pre-presidential-primary era, a William Henry Harrison type. He’s almost certainly not running for a second term, no matter what he’s saying right now. Even if he wanted to, I doubt his family would agree. 

What’s more, Biden has been unable to keep the central promise he made in order to get elected. I’m not talking about policy—I’m talking about Trump. Biden’s voters wanted Trump gone, and Trump is far from gone. America hasn’t seen a President earn two discontinuous terms since Grover Cleveland. Defeated Presidents retire to the sidelines, write books, go on speaking tours, and build their libraries. Jimmy Carter devoted himself to public service. They don’t plot to overturn results, speak at and encourage a violent insurrection, and continue, 18 months later, to pound on the White House door insisting they were robbed. They spread poison because they want to spoil for everyone else what they no longer possess. The electorate who voted for Joe Biden thought, quite logically, that Donald Trump would return to deal-making and his personal interests and be done with it. They didn’t understand Trump and didn’t quite grasp his utter contempt for boundaries, even Constitutional ones. I would add that it’s not just Democrats and Independents who thought this. A lot of Republicans would be much happier today if Trump would take his foot off their necks. The irony is that the best way to show their independence is to join with Biden on a handful of bipartisan initiatives—but they dare not. 

I suppose you can’t blame Biden for Trump’s vampire act, but again, just like on COVID, inflation, baby formula, and gas prices, he hasn’t delivered. He’s not an effective spokesman for the basic political and civic values that we all should treasure. Democrats tie themselves into knots over the “how can the voters not be outraged about___,” but the answer is staring them in the face. Guilt is not an effective messaging tool. Advocacy, coupled with meaningful deliverables, can be. 

If Biden can’t be the spokesman, then who can? The Democrats have some bench strength, but not of the megawatt variety. The second-ranking Democrat in the country, Kamala Harris, is struggling. The Administration’s single most effective spokesman is Pete Buttigieg, and it’s not close—the rest of his Cabinet was chosen for competence and not camera-readiness. There are a few veteran candidates, like Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Corey Booker, and there are plain-speaking folks like Jon Tester, Sherrod Brown, and new-on-the-scene John Fetterman, but there are no surrogates that have a truly national following.  It looks like Democrats will have to settle on a national campaign message without a national messenger.  They will have to fight it out at the state and local level, often on state and local issues.

Not inspired? If the messengers don’t float your boat, then the message has to be sharper. The price of passivity in 2016 was Donald Trump, a group of Republican politicians like Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis who look to rule by decree, and scores of Federalist Society-blessed District and Court of Appeals Judges who seem to think their only purpose in life is to make sure Trump’s policies are continued . . . even though he’s no longer in office. The price is also a Supreme Court majority that sees itself as a bulwark against modernity, against privacy, against the exercise of the Franchise, and against any use of either Executive or Legislative authority with which it does not personally agree. It’s not good for the country to watch a Supreme Court Justice gleefully refuse to recuse himself when his own wife was intimately involved in planning to overturn an election—and to lecture the public on the civic duty to obey.

The Civil-War-Era historian J.B. Freeman often talks about how northern Whigs and Republicans were frustrated by the perceived lack of toughness in their politicians when matched against the more bellicose pro-slavery ones. Nothing has changed. Far too frequently, we respond to existential challenges to our freedoms with talking points that can fit on a bumper sticker.

We don’t need to break I.B. Singer’s parents’ rules of engagement to stand our own ground. But, if we aren’t willing to do even that, then we may find ourselves furtively sneaking into our garages to scrape off those offending words, lest some nosy neighbor in a “Trump Won” T-shirt report us to the authorities.

A little disarray is the Democratic way. A lot may leave the ship at the bottom of the sea.