The Memo: Democrats face nightmare scenario, ‘biblical disaster’

Democrats are facing a nightmare scenario with about six months to go before the midterm elections.

Inflation, immigration, the war in Ukraine and the still-lingering COVID-19 pandemic make for a dreadful political atmosphere for President Biden’s party.

The problems are compounded by Biden’s weak approval numbers and the historical pattern whereby a president’s party typically loses seats in the first midterms of his tenure.

Some Democrats believe a turnaround is still possible, or at least that losses can be kept modest.

But others, granted anonymity to speak candidly, sound a louder alarm.

“I think this is going to be a biblical disaster,” said one such Democratic strategist, who did not wish to be named. “This is the reality we are in as Democrats and no one wants to face it.”

Democrats know the bitter taste of bad midterm results. The party fared dismally during the first midterm elections of President Clinton and President Obama. In 1994, with Clinton in the White House, Democrats lost a net 54 House seats. In 2010, under Obama, they lost 63 seats.

An increasingly gerrymandered Congress makes that kind of wipeout hard to see this year. 

But around Washington, virtually no one expects Democrats to retain their slim House majority. One useful point of comparison is 1982, when inflation was rampant as it is now and Republicans lost a net 26 House seats with President Reagan in the White House.

The vulnerabilities for Biden’s party are clear and specific.

New data released Tuesday showed inflation at 8.5 percent, the highest figure since 1981. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) released a statement lamenting that inflation is “out of control” and complaining that both the Biden administration and the Federal Reserve had “failed to act fast enough.”

On immigration, the Department of Homeland Security has said that it is preparing for an influx of as many as 18,000 immigrants per day later this year. 

The astronomical number could be reached late this summer, given that the administration is scheduled to abandon the use of Title 42 in late May. The controversial Trump-era measure had been used to deny entry during the pandemic to migrants, including asylum-seekers — purportedly on public health grounds.

Biden is between a rock and a hard place on Title 42. 

It is widely seen on the left as an anti-migrant measure masquerading as a public health policy. But its proposed removal has drawn opposition from several Democratic senators in competitive races this fall, including Sens. Mark Kelly (Ariz.) and Maggie Hassan (N.H.). Their resistance is testament to the political potency of immigration.

Biden’s efforts aimed at rebuffing the Russian invasion of Ukraine have won widespread praise as he has galvanized a Western alliance against the Kremlin. 

But that praise has not translated into any kind of significant polling boost for the president. Ukraine, for all the heroics of its people, still faces deep disparities in military firepower against Russia. A long war of attrition could also prolong the economic pain for Americans, particularly when it comes to gas and grocery prices.

As if all that were not enough, COVID-19 has killed almost 1 million Americans, inflicted economic and psychological harm and transformed the contours of daily life. And it’s not over yet. Philadelphia announced on Monday that it would reimpose an indoor mask mandate as infections rise once again.

Even Democrats who don’t see the party facing an outright doomsday scenario acknowledge that the confluence of factors creates severe headwinds.

“We are in a very chaotic moment right now,” said one Democratic strategist, Joel Payne. “There’s COVID, Afghanistan was just last year, now there’s the war in Ukraine, and the economy is up or down depending on who you are. There is this general instability that sunk Donald Trump a mere 18 or 20 months ago, and it is now Joe Biden’s problem, Joe Biden’s challenge.”

In addition to all those factors, an internal debate is going on within Democratic ranks about whether the party’s messaging has gone awry or whether the key problem is one of substance rather than spin.

Biden has sought to emphasize the positive elements of the economy, especially record job growth. Almost 8 million jobs have been created during his time in office.

Allies of the administration also argue that Biden has real accomplishments, including the COVID-19 relief bill passed more than a year ago, and the infrastructure package that the president signed last fall. 

They also contend that Biden has done what he can to ameliorate some of the most pressing problems for the general public, such as rising gas prices. 

Biden has authorized the release of around 1 million barrels of oil per day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and, on Tuesday, announced a push to make a cheaper form of gasoline, which uses an ethanol blend, available during the summer months.

But very little of this appears to have eased the public’s dissatisfaction. Biden’s approval rating as of Tuesday was 42.2 percent, according to the weighted average maintained by data and polling site FiveThirtyEight.

Many Democrats complain that their party’s message has lacked clarity and failed to connect with the realities of voters’ lives. They also fear that a prolonged period of Capitol Hill infighting over legislation late last year damaged the party’s fortunes.

“The bad news is seeping through. It’s the good news — and there has been plenty of good news — that Democrats have done a poor job of messaging,” said Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky.

“You have to explain to voters in very real terms what you have done to help them,” Roginsky added. “When you use huge numbers like ‘a billion’ or ‘a trillion,’ that is something that voters just see as spending coming out of Washington.”

It is always possible that the political winds could shift. Inflation could decline in the months ahead. Russian President Vladimir Putin could back down in Ukraine. Perhaps the expected migrant surge this summer simply won’t materialize.

But right now, the picture is grim, and getting grimmer, for Democrats.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Coronavirus Inflation Joe Biden Russia Ukraine

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