Republicans aren’t guaranteed to sweep the midterms, but if they do, here’s what to expect
“A week is a long time in politics,” former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said. By that standard, four months is an eternity. Everything could change between now and Nov. 8. At least, Democrats better hope so. Because as things now stand, Democrats are likely to lose their slim majority in the House of Representatives. If that happens, President Biden’s agenda will be doomed.
One shock has already happened: the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case last month to overturn Roe v. Wade and thereby end the constitutionally protected status of abortion rights.
You can’t take away a right that Americans have had for 50 years without expecting a political backlash. Like what’s happening now. “It’s up to every single one of us to go out day after day after day until November,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) told protesters outside the Supreme Court.
What exactly can the voters do this November? They can elect more Democrats to the House and Senate, thereby making it more likely that Congress will give statutory protection to abortion rights. As long as the filibuster is in place, however, such a measure is likely to go nowhere in the Senate. The prospect of either party gaining a 60-vote (and thereby filibuster-proof) Senate majority seems remote. And Democrats may want the filibuster in place if they lose their single-vote majority in the Senate this year.
Donald Trump is eager to get press attention in order to defend himself from the damaging revelations coming out of the Jan. 6 committee hearings in Congress. Suppose Trump enters the 2024 presidential race before November. It would electrify the 2022 campaign, especially if the Justice Department initiates a criminal investigation of the former president. Democrats would have a powerful issue: “Look at what President Trump did to the Supreme Court. Imagine what he could do if he is reelected with a Republican Congress!”
Some Democrats are supporting extremist Republicans in the GOP primaries — on the theory that they would be easy to defeat in November. Those Democrats are missing a crucial fact about political behavior. Democrats now control the White House and both houses of Congress. When voters vote for the opposition party, they are typically not making an ideological statement. They are voting for change.
If the demand for change becomes strong enough, many people will vote for the opposition party no matter who the candidate is. Once voters start saying, “We can’t go on like this!” — inflation, gas prices, crime, immigration — even radical opposition candidates will look acceptable. Do Democrats really want to take that risk?
Suppose Republicans do enjoy a sweeping victory this year. Will it mean anything for the 2024 presidential race? Not necessarily.
Ronald Reagan’s first midterm election in 1982 was a serious setback for the new president and his party. The country was in a deep recession (10.8 percent unemployment) following the hyperinflation of the Carter years. Reaganomics had never worked. Republicans ended up losing 26 House seats, one Senate seat and seven governors. Republicans were able to limit their losses by running on the theme “Stay the course!”
Voters knew what the course was. Reagan had set it out in his first budget message to Congress in February 1981: “This plan is aimed at reducing the growth in government spending and taxing [and] reforming and eliminating regulations which are unnecessary and unproductive.” At the same time, President Reagan promised to protect “the social safety net.” In fact, Reagan was the first president to use the term “safety net.”
Will Biden be able to argue “Stay the course” in 2024? His “Build Back Better” program has never gotten through a nominally Democratic Congress.
By 1984, it was “Morning in America.” The economic recovery was underway, unemployment was falling and, most importantly, the inflation rate dropped from 13.6 to 4.3 percent. Reagan was reelected with almost 60 percent of the popular vote.
Bill Clinton’s first midterm in 1992 was a catastrophe for his party. It was the year of the “angry white male.” With a net loss of 54 seats, Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. And look at what happened two years later. In 1996, Clinton was easily reelected over Republican Bob Dole.
Barack Obama faced a huge “tea party” uprising in his first midterm in 2010. The backlash to Obamacare brought Republicans a phenomenal gain of 63 House seats — the largest midterm election shift since 1938. What did it mean two years later? Nothing. Obama was reelected over Republican Mitt Romney with 51 percent of the popular vote — the first Democrat to carry a majority of the popular vote twice since FDR.
Here’s a prediction: If Republicans win the House this year, they will vote to impeach Biden. For what? They’ll find something. But they won’t convict him because they won’t have anything close to the required two-thirds majority in the Senate. The popular backlash to a spite-driven impeachment will deliver a second term for Biden in 2024.