There's a memorable scene in the Coen Brother film O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) where the fictional Mississippi governor Pappy O'Daniel (inspired by the real Texas politician W. Lee O'Daniel) confronts assistants running his campaign for re-election. Facing a surging opponent, O'Daniel demands new ideas to turn the race around. When his dimwitted son suggests "people like that reform, maybe we should get us some," the governor explodes. "Reform, you soft-headed sumb---h? How we gonna run reform when we're the damn incumbent?"
Democrats find themselves in a comparable situation today. Facing dim prospects in the upcoming midterm elections, President Biden has tried to redirect attention from his own record to Donald Trump. "This is not your father's Republican Party. This is a MAGA party," he said at a press conference last week. In a speech on Wednesday, he described Trump as "the great MAGA king."
To be fair, the president doesn't have a lot of cards to play. With low approval and the economy, crime, and immigration among voters' top concerns, it's hard for Biden to depict his administration as a success. In a post defending the MAGA gambit, Timothy Noah argues that Biden's "low numbers are seriously unfair," citing the relative success of U.S. policy on Ukraine and some favorable economic data. The problem is that these issues are either low salience or counterbalanced by other factors, above all, rampant inflation.
More generally, appeals to negative partisanship are more successful for challengers than incumbents. For most voters, the risks of a shift in power are speculative. The difficulties associated with the status quo, by contrast, are very real. That includes problems for which the president has little direct responsibility. It may not be altogether fair to blame Biden for the shortage of baby formula, to cite just one vivid example. But that's how politics works, no matter who occupies the White House.
Voters' habit of turning against the president explains why the incumbent party has faced major losses almost every midterm election since the Civil War. Over the last three decades, the president's party experienced huge losses in 1994, 2010, and 2018. The main recent exception is 2002, when Republicans gained seats in both Houses of Congress in the wake of 9/11. But Democrats made up for it in 2006, when they regained the majority in both chambers.
Beyond the historical pattern, Terry MacAuliffe's failed bid for governor of Virginia last year shows the specific limitation of a Trump-focused campaign in a race where Trump is not actually on the ballot. To many voters, appeals to the legitimacy of elections or denunciations of the Jan. 6 riots are too abstract and retrospective to matter very much.
It's possible that Democrats will gain some benefits from the apparently doomed precedent of Roe v. Wade, which a majority of the public supports in principle. But the most passionate supporters of abortion have long since become loyal Democrats. And the party's maximalist strategy on the issue seems more likely to thrill progressive activists than to attract moderates who view abortion as a generally bad thing that is tragically justified in certain cases.
It's understandable that Biden is trying to whip up antipathy against Trump and MAGA, then. It's just not very likely to help. After half a century in politics, Biden knows that he's in the same tough spot as Pappy O'Daniel, but he and his party are out of ideas. Maybe he should try endorsing The Soggy Bottom Boys.