If and when the smoke from Russia's war in Ukraine clears — or is replaced by the fog of forever war — the focus of U.S. politics will turn inexorably toward November's midterm elections. Democrats won't like what they see. While there is still, just barely, time to stage a comeback, avoiding a wipeout will require a coordinated pivot from party leadership down to the lowliest House candidate.
How bad are things? The FiveThirtyEight average of President Biden's approval has him at 42.1 percent, virtually identical to former President Donald Trump's the day before the 2018 midterms. In that election, Democrats gained 41 seats in the House.
And it's not just Biden. Democrats are now behind Republicans by more than 2 points in the generic ballot for Congress and have trailed in multiple 2022 polls in Florida, Nevada, and Georgia. Democratic Senate candidates also look shaky in Georgia, Nevada, and New Hampshire in particular — all seats that must be retained if the party is to hold onto its narrow majority.
This Democratic predicament has many causes: a pandemic that was supposed to end last summer, inflation with still-uncertain causes, legislative inertia and broken campaign promises caused by a handful of centrist holdouts, and a generally dyspeptic public looking to cashier the nearest politico handy for the ongoing unpleasantness of their lives.
That complexity of problems doesn't mean there's nothing to be done.
The first thing to tackle is the public's economic pessimism. Biden and other Democrats seem shocked that job growth and robust GDP numbers have not reversed this mood. But the impact of inflation on struggling households and the psychological cost of ongoing shortages cannot be overstated, and the the Federal Reserve's decision to raise interest rates was only a first step.
There are other, more direct options for Dems. Is this all part of a semiconductor shortage? Use the Defense Production Act to scale up domestic chip manufacturing. Democrats can't wave a wand and lower prices at the grocery store, and price controls are likely beyond the political capacity of this Congress, Democrats could take on corporate price-gouging and monopolies. The effort to increase competition in food industries, already underway, is a nice beginning, but a high-profile Justice Department investigation of profiteering might scare some of the worst offenders straight.
Likewise, the sudden hike in gasoline prices is all the more reason to push harder for aggressive subsidies of electric vehicles, which could free millions from reliance on the petroleum industry. And in the meantime, there's definitely a case for tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve again and reminding voters that all the GOP will do to address high prices is cut taxes for rich people.
Next, Democrats need this election to be fought on their terms.The party is on its heels in a relentless, media-fueled culture war whose parameters are defined entirely by the right. Critical Race Theory, cancel culture, masking-in-schools battles, the latest trans panic of the month — it's a genuinely incoherent stew of festering grievances, but Democrats' defense has been just as messy.
What would work better? How about a message like this: What's happening in Republican-led states is a comprehensive assault on human liberty by an unhinged, authoritarian party that believes, with good reason, there are effectively no limits on its escalatory behavior. The same people complaining about "the woke mafia" and its mostly mythical cancelations want to fire teachers for thoughtcrimes and prevent open discussion of American history in high school and college classrooms. In Florida, discussion of gender identity is now illegal in classrooms from Kindergarten to third grade. This will surely chill speech throughout the public school system.
And it's not just rhetoric and speech. Abortion will soon be illegal in red states across the land, with laws written to maximize cruelty. "Family members of the fetus" can sue abortion providers for $20,000 in Idaho, and multiple states are aping the Texas law allowing private citizens to sue anyone who "aids and abets" an abortion and collect $10,000. It is only a matter of time before even the loopier proposals succeed.
The GOP's fresh enthusiasm for using Americans against one another with cash rewards to control women's bodies has to be one of history's easiest political targets. Call it "radical Republican authoritarianism" and make sure every single candidate — from dog walker to senator — uses the same phrase. If Democrats can't win this race, they're truly hopeless.
Finally, Democrats need a win in Congress. This remarkably weak Democratic trifecta can't usher in Scandinavian-style social democracy or tackle climate change in any meaningful way. But it is still possible that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — the chief roadblock to passing Biden's Build Back Better agenda — could be persuaded to support a smaller bill delivering on one or two major items, perhaps paid parental leave, along with a politically and epidemiologically critical investment in further pandemic measures.
The Biden administration has been right to distance itself from divisive battles over mask mandates, which seem to have quite marginal impact at the population level. But the failure of House Democrats to push through additional COVID funding leaves the country deeply vulnerable to another surge of the virus. Do Democrats want a rerun of the Omicron nightmare on the eve of the election? Do they want to open themselves to allegations that they're disinvesting in vaccine research while more variants keep emerging? Do they want to run out of vaccine supply when demand for fourth shots shoots up? If not, the time to act was yesterday.
These are big asks. But it is still possible to squint and see a winning environment for Democrats this November. And if they don't win then, it could be another decade or longer before the party has another chance to govern.