Democrats’ Christmas in November
Democrats are in for a great holiday season, thankful for their historically — and surprising — good showing in the midterm elections and celebrating the holy war Republicans are fighting.
The party crucially kept control of the Senate, and the Republican advantage in the House is exceedingly tenuous.
The only comparably favorable midterm successes over the last century were in 2002, when the Republicans were still benefitting from the Sept. 11 attacks, in 1962 with an election weeks after the Cuban Missile crisis and in 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression.
Yes, the Republicans will control the House, but it’s such a narrow margin that the main bout may be between the new crazies versus old crazies within the Republican caucus, with sideshows like investigations into Hunter Biden and threats of government shutdowns.
Still, come January, Democrats will get a bit of a cold shower, realizing that little will be accomplished legislatively next Congress (they still think of themselves as the governing party), that their small left wing remains a problem, and that 2024 will offer challenges both in the congressional elections and whether Joe Biden should seek reelection.
Reconciliation, which enabled Senate passage with only a majority rather than 60 votes, is off the table next year as it takes both houses. (A reconciliation to deal with extending the debt ceiling may be possible in the current lame duck session.)
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer talks about selective deals with Republicans chastened by the election results, but the GOP Senate caucus next year will be more right-wing than the current one. Moreover, anything Senate Democrats favor will be opposed by House Republicans.
There may be some small stuff in the appropriations measures, but none of the assistance for low-income children and tax changes left on the table this year.
That’ll displease the Democrats’ very vocal left wing, which had a bad election. In Oregon, they beat a moderate Democratic incumbent in the primary, but Republicans won the seat in the general election.
The most vulnerable Senate incumbent was Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, whose polls were deeply underwater; the state’s largest newspapers called him the “worst Wisconsin political representative” since the infamous Sen. Joe McCarthy. The Democrats had several candidates who likely would have beaten Johnson, but they nominated Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a Bernie Sanders supporter. Johnson, deploying racial dog whistles on crime, survived and will be returning to the Senate.
Attacking Democrats for soaring crime helped numerous Republicans in places like New York. Much of it was bogus — the violent crime rate isn’t rising — but too many Democrats didn’t address it for fear of alienating the left.
I’d love to see a poll that asks “Which do you most identify the Democratic Party with: A.) defunding the police (which very few Democrats actually favor), or B.) adding 100,000 more and better-paid police (which President Biden actually proposed)?” I’ll bet more would say the former.
There is talk that the new “blueprint” for Democrats is the victory of populist Senate candidate John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, because he ran several points better in working-class districts than Joe Biden in 2020. He ran a good campaign, but he was helped by the coattails of a massive win by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, a mainstream progressive from suburban Philadelphia, who consistently ran ahead of Fetterman in working-class red counties. Shapiro actually carried Beaver County in the far western part of the state and Luzerne in the east, two counties where Trump won in both 2016 and 2020 and where Fetterman ran well but lost by nearly ten points.
The outlook for 2024 is cloudy: 23 of 33 Senate seats up for reelection are held by Democrats, including three in red states. What’s more, for all the Democrats’ success, they suffered two consequential defeats for control of the state supreme courts in North Carolina and Ohio. These had served as a check on the extremely partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts in those states. Without that check, these legislatures are expected to draw new maps next year for the 2024 election that could cost Democrats as many as four or five seats, making it harder to wrest back control of the House.
As for the presidential race, after this year, it’s clear that Florida and Ohio are solidly Republican. That reduces the Democrats’ playing field. With the new census numbers, Biden’s electoral count dropped by three.
The biggest concern is the fitness of the president, who turns 80 today. In the Nov. 8 exit poll, two-thirds of voters did not want Biden to run for reelection. In the huge Associated Press VoteCast survey, one in five Democrats said he lacks the mental capacity to effectively serve as president. I believe that’s just a reflection of right-wing propaganda on social media and Fox News.
Still, there are more than a few rays of light ahead.
Some leading Democratic and Wall Street economists expect inflation to drop to close to 3 percent, with unemployment rising to 5 percent to 5.5 percent. That may be an okay political hand.
And then there’s the Democrats’ ace: Donald Trump.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.