Pervasive malaise may be the Democrats’ biggest midterm challenge

For Democrats, the national forecast keeps going from bad to worse.

Consumer prices are rising. President Biden’s approval rating is falling. Mass shootings are endemic. Race relations are strained. Baby formula is scarce. The Democrats’ legislative agenda is on the rocks. And party leaders — from the White House to Capitol Hill — have limited power to exact the reforms they consider crucial for righting the listing ship. 

While the midterm cycle was always expected to pose steep challenges for the president’s party, the steady stream of bleak developments — to include a bloody shooting war in Europe, a volatile economy at home and a stubborn pandemic that’s everywhere — has soured the public mood and exacerbated the difficulties facing Democratic leaders as they fight to maintain razor-thin majorities at the polls in November.

And those are just the near-term anxieties. 

For many Democrats, the troubles extend well beyond their midterm prospects to include creeping concerns that Congress’s inability to enact foundational reforms — including efforts to protect voting rights, curb gun violence and tackle racist extremism — means the country risks backsliding to a place where civil rights go unprotected and violent bigotry goes unchecked. 

In the eyes of these lawmakers, democracy itself is under threat from the enduring right-wing lie that the 2020 election was “stolen.”

Women’s rights are under threat from a conservative-leaning Supreme Court that appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.

And civil rights are newly at risk from a rise in violent extremism, which surfaced again this month in Buffalo, N.Y., where a white teenager promoting racist conspiracy theories was charged with shooting 13 people in a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Ten of them died.

The combination has rattled many Democrats, who fear that much of the social progress of the last half century is under threat of slipping away. And perhaps no one is voicing the sense of despondency as loudly as Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the Democratic whip and civil rights veteran, who warned recently that “the country is in danger of imploding.” 

“I thought in difficult times that this too shall pass. I’m not too sure anymore. I’m really not,” he told The Washington Post earlier this month. 

“Democracy is in danger of disintegrating, and I don’t know why people feel that this country is insulated from the historical trends,” he continued. “This stuff is dangerous. But maybe autocracy is the future of the country.” 

Last week, Clyburn tempered his pessimism slightly, saying he retains hope in the country’s future. But citing the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., he also warned that, in the eternal battle between those of good faith and bad, the latter for the moment appears to be winning. 

“There are a lot of people of goodwill in our country. There are a lot of people of ill will in the country. Now the question is, which group will prevail?” Clyburn said Tuesday in a phone interview. “The group that prevails will be the one that makes the best use of their time. And right now the people of goodwill seem to be afraid of their own shadows.”

Fueling perceptions that the country is spinning out of control, another mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 fourth grade students and two teachers were killed by an 18-year-old gunman bearing an assault rifle, stunned the nation last week. 

The burst of violence has sparked yet another national debate over the country’s gun laws and the reasons why the U.S. is unique in the world when it comes to shooting massacres. But while lawmakers of both parties have teamed up in search of a legislative response, Democrats aren’t holding their breath for support from GOP lawmakers, who are overwhelmingly opposed to virtually any new restriction on the sale or possession of firearms. 

“I’ll believe that there are Republicans in the Senate who are ready to attack gun violence head on when I see it,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “And not before.” 

The pervasive sense of volatility surrounding current events is taking its toll on public attitudes about the general direction of the country. A new CBS News survey, conducted after the Buffalo shooting but before the Uvalde massacre, found that just 26 percent of voters think things in America are going “very well” or “somewhat well,” versus 74 percent who think they’re going “very badly” or “somewhat badly.” The plurality of respondents, 41 percent, ticked the “very badly” box. 

It’s not that Democrats have no victories to claim. Biden, in his first weeks in office, pushed through a massive coronavirus relief package. And last year, Congress sent him a bipartisan infrastructure bill that constituted the largest new public works spending in decades. 

Additionally, workers’ wages are up, unemployment is down to pre-pandemic levels and the economy last year grew at its fastest rate in almost four decades. A report issued last week from the Federal Reserve found that 78 percent of Americans reported themselves to be financially stable at the end of last year, a record high.  

Still, the good economic news has been largely overshadowed by the bad. Inflation has spiked at a rate not seen in decades, eclipsing the wage gains. Gas prices are above $4 per gallon in most of the country just as the summer driving season is set to begin. The baby formula crisis has fueled parental anxieties. And major pieces of Biden’s agenda have stalled, including proposals to protect voting rights, overhaul policing and expand background checks prior to gun sales, all of which were blocked by Republican opposition. 

Perhaps most notably, the president also failed to move an enormous education and climate package — legislation blocked by Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate West Virginia Democrat with close ties to the fossil fuel industry. 

The series of impasses has fed perceptions that Democrats, despite controlling the Senate, House and White House, can’t get anything done. The CBS poll found that only 36 percent of voters deemed them to be “effective.” 

Through it all, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has remained unbowed, arguing that Democrats will overcome any sense of national malaise to keep control of the House in November’s midterms. They’ll do it, she says, by focusing on “kitchen table issues” — not only related to the economy but also to include defending women’s rights to abortion. 

“We’ll have a nonmenacing message that is progressive and bold. … And we will win,” she said last week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. “It is absolutely essential for our country. Our democracy is on the ballot.”

In the eyes of Republicans, meanwhile, the flood of tough news is simple evidence of poor governance by Democrats, who control both the White House and Congress. And GOP campaign strategists have been quick to blame every negative trend — particularly the spike in inflation and a rise in crime — on Biden and his party.

“Democrats are right to acknowledge they are in a difficult political environment,” said Mike Berg, spokesman for the House GOP’s campaign arm. “They’ve done a horrible job running the government and voters have noticed.” 

Democratic leaders are quick to blame Congress’s legislative stalemates on Republican “obstructionism,” accusing GOP leaders of opposing virtually everything Biden proposes for the simple purpose of denying their White House adversary a political victory. And with expectations that Roe could fall, they’re hoping to use the threat to women’s reproductive freedoms to highlight for voters yet another stark distinction between the two parties. 

“The divide between the two parties right now is that Republicans would use government to further their extremist goals; and Democrats are using government right now to help make people’s lives better,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

Aris Folley and Mychael Schnell contributed reporting. 

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