Democrats have lost sight of how to build a broad-based coalition absent Donald Trump or a Trump-like GOP foe. As a result, they could be on track to suffer one of the most considerable midterm losses of any party in recent history.
President Biden has lost more public support during his first several months in office than any U.S. president since World War II, per Gallup.
Last week, Biden’s approval rating fell to a new low of 41 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove, according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll. Republicans now also hold a 10-point lead in the generic congressional vote — the biggest lead ever recorded for the GOP in the 40-year history of this question being asked, including ahead of the GOP waves in 2014, 2010 and 1994.
Taken together with the decisive swing to Republicans in Virginia, New Jersey and New York state elections earlier this month, it’s clear that Americans are turning against a Democratic Party that they feel has become more attuned to the priorities of progressives and less focused on addressing the concerns and frustrations of the broader American electorate.
The New York Times editorial board recently summarized the risks Democrats pose to themselves: “A national Democratic Party that talks up progressive policies at the expense of bipartisan ideas, and that dwells on Donald Trump at the expense of forward-looking ideas, is at risk of becoming a marginal Democratic Party appealing only to the left.”
Indeed, 62 percent of registered voters believe the Democratic Party is out of touch with most Americans, per the ABC News-Washington Post survey.
Since August, Democrats have been caught up in an intraparty feud over the size and scope of a massive legislative package comprised of their social spending priorities, the “Build Back Better” plan, which the public arguably knows more by its multitrillion-dollar price tag than by its content. Republicans have worked — with some degree of success — to depict the Democrats’ agenda as inflationary.
Ultimately, in their pursuit of the “transformational” change offered by the Build Back Better plan — often without being able to articulate a clear vision for what that change actually entails — Biden and Democrats have been overlooking manifest political realities at their own peril.
Economic discontent is widespread, inflation is at a 30-year high, and the prices of gasoline and consumer goods are soaring — all of which voters attribute to the Biden administration’s policies, fair or not. In addition, voters are worried about the crisis at the southern border and are wary of enacting sweeping climate policies.
Seven in 10 voters say the economy is in bad shape, only 39 percent approve of Biden’s handling of the economy and close to one-half blame him for inflation, according to the ABC News-Washington Post poll. Sixty-one percent of voters believe that the rise in gasoline prices is due to the Biden administration’s policies, per a recent Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey, which also found that nearly 9 in 10 voters are concerned about inflation.
On immigration, only 35 percent of voters approve of the administration’s immigration policies, and a majority (54 percent) believe the Biden administration is creating an open border rather than enforcing immigration laws more humanely (46 percent), according to the Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey. With regard to climate, nearly 6 in 10 voters believe that maintaining energy independence is more important than reducing our carbon emissions if the two are in conflict.
An important note: Biden won the 2020 election as a moderate who pledged to bring unity, normalcy and problem-solving back to Washington. He did not win with a mandate to enact a progressive — and arguably divisive — agenda. For that matter, neither did Democrats in Congress, who won the Senate by the narrowest possible margin and kept control of the House by a handful of seats. Notably, down-ballot Democrats also underperformed across the board in 2020.
Democrats’ failure to recognize this was the driving force behind their 2021 election shellacking and is poised to be their downfall in next year’s midterms. Predictably, Democrats who are defending vulnerable House districts in 2022 have grown increasingly frustrated with Biden.
“Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who represents a district that Biden won by a single point in 2020, following the Democrats’ loss in Virginia.
Biden has invoked the legacy of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and has hinted that is the type of legacy he aspires to. Some Democrats have even drawn parallels between their Build Back Better agenda and FDR’s “New Deal.”
That being said, during the second half of the 1930s, when much of the New Deal was passed, Democrats controlled more than 300 House seats and as many as 76 Senate seats. Clearly, that is not the case today — the Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Harris able to cast tiebreaking votes, and Democrats control the House by just five seats.
Going forward, Democrats need to recognize that the broader American electorate, and especially swing-state voters, “are not liberals, are not woke and do not see the world in the way that the people who staff and donate to Democratic campaigns do,” as Ezra Klein noted after his interview with political analyst David Shor.
The party needs to find a way to come together on a moderate agenda that is more than a reaction to Trump and Trumpism — one that centers on controlling inflation and rising prices, fiscally responsible welfare reform and expansion, responsible tax policies, stronger borders, and growing the economy for all.
If they cannot, Democrats will end up sleepwalking into an electoral disaster in 2022.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” Zoe Young is a senior strategist at Schoen Cooperman Research.
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