Historically, two years after they take office or win reelection, United States presidents suffer the indignity of watching their party lose lots of seats in Congress. In the last quarter century, however, there have been two exceptions to this rule. The first came in 1998 when Newt Gingrich’s House Republicans made the highly unpopular decision to impeach President Bill Clinton. The second came in 2002, when the country was still in post-9/11 mode and inclined to rally around President George W. Bush’s bellicose foreign policy.
There’s no recent record of a president avoiding midterm humiliation through good governance or passing popular legislation. Instead, in one instance, we saw a backlash against minority party extremism and, in the other, a rally-around-the-flag reaction to a major threat to our national sense of security.
In other words, it seems like happenstance has more to do with the outcome of midterm elections than the president’s performance in office. In fact, ironically, President Clinton seemed to benefit from his decision to lie about having sexual relations with a White House intern, and President Bush from his decision to ignore intelligence warning of a major domestic terrorist attack.
As of now, President Biden has not made similar mistakes and it doesn’t look like the country is rallying around him as the 2022 midterm elections approach. But there’s still a chance that something awful will happen that causes the country to unite around its existing leadership or that the Republicans will go too far and invite a concerted backlash.
The imminent outlawing of abortion in much of the country could be an example of the latter phenomenon, while an escalation of the conflict with Russia could form the foundation for the former.
One thing to consider however is that President Clinton weathered the Monica Lewinsky scandal largely because he was otherwise popular. That was probably more a feature of an excellent economy than his legislative achievements, but the sense that he actually got things done did not hurt. It still seems important that Biden signs some significant bills between now and November, especially because the state of the economy is not going to come to his party’s rescue.
The Wall Street Journal reports that negotiations with Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) are heating up and there’s some renewed hope in the White House that Congress might pass some of his legislative agenda. Rather than predict that this will actually happen, I simply want to say that it would helpful to the Democrats’ election chances if it does.
It won’t be some kind of miracle solution, and it matters less politically what is included in the legislation than that something, anything, can be signed by the president and held up as proof that he’s an effective leader.
I know this is a thoroughly cynical analysis of the political situation, almost as if bad behavior is more likely to be rewarded than good, and that showy demonstrations of competence are just as good as actual competence. But, sadly, history strongly suggests that the Democrats’ best bet in the midterms is that things outside of their control wind up giving them a benefit. A backlash against Republican radicalism seems like the most likely reason why the midterms could go better than expected.
The one thing the Democrats can control is their messaging. And that messaging should quite obviously highlight they many ways in which the GOP is operating outside the mainstream of popular opinion. The January 6 hearings will be critical in this respect, but so will their positions on abortion and gun violence.