What's at stake — and in play — for the midterms

What's at stake — and in play — for the midterms
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The chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The resurgent pandemic. The sputtering economic recovery. Climate disasters. A surge of immigrants at the border. Democratic disunity over spending bills. President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act:  a bill long overdue MORE’s declining job ratings. It all adds up to growing pessimism among Democrats that they will be able to keep control of Congress next year.

A Republican House of Representatives would very likely move to impeach President Biden. For what? They would find something. Impeachment, like the Senate filibuster, is becoming a routine weapon of partisan warfare. “If we leave one American behind [in Afghanistan], if we don’t get all those Afghans who stepped up to the plate to help us out, then Joe Biden, in my view, has committed a high crime and misdemeanor under the Constitution and should be impeached,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on Fox News.

The odds are not good for Democrats next year. Republicans would need to gain five House seats and one Senate seat to take over Congress. In the last ten midterm elections, the president’s party has lost an average of 23 House seats and three Senate seats. Moreover, 2022 is a redistricting year, and Republicans, who have more power in state governments, will be able to create 187 House districts and Democrats only 75.

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Last year, Democrats ran against President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE. They may try to do that again next year, but it will be harder without Trump on the ballot. The former president still defines the Republican Party, however, and he is holding open the option of running for president again. An Emerson College poll shows Trump one point ahead of Biden in a trial heat for 2024.

In the 1994 midterm, Republicans ran against President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonRepublican spin on Biden is off the mark Bill Clinton shares video update after release from hospital Biden, Democrats risk everything unless they follow the Clinton pivot (they won't) MORE. They offered a “Contract with America” and gained 54 House seats and their first majority in the House in 40 years. In the 2010 “tea party” midterm,  Republicans ran against President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden ahead of pace Trump set for days away from White House: CNN The Senate is setting a dangerous precedent with Iron Dome funding Obama says change may be coming 'too rapidly' for many MORE. They gained six Senate seats and 63 House seats.

In 2022, Republicans are expecting similar big gains by making the newly vulnerable Joe Biden the target of their campaign. Republicans will portray Biden as hapless and ineffectual — the second coming of Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterIs US relationship with Taiwan worth more than 'a scrap of paper'? Biden, Democrats risk everything unless they follow the Clinton pivot (they won't) Raffensperger calling for bipartisan federal election reform commission MORE.

Voters see power as the ability to control events. Ronald Reagan projected power. Jimmy Carter didn’t.

Of course, events are rarely under a president’s control. But the president has to create the illusion that they are. Otherwise, voters become anxious. In 1980, President Carter allowed the Iran hostage crisis to control his agenda. The president actually has very little control over events, something that became clear after the disastrous U.S. rescue mission on Day 173. By focusing so obsessively on the hostages, President Carter put himself in a box. The story made him appear ineffectual (“America Held Hostage – Day 400”). It diminished the president’s power.

President Biden did not allow that to happen. The Afghanistan withdrawal ended in a few days with an outcome — withdrawal of U.S. forces — that Americans clearly favored. It could not be called a total success, however. Americans overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001 in retaliation for 9/11. And now? The Taliban are back in power. On Aug. 26, terrorists based in Afghanistan killed 13 U.S. service members and injured 18 at Kabul airport. President Biden subsequently defined our “vital national interest” as making sure “Afghanistan can never be used again to launch an attack on our homeland.”

President Biden used his speech to the nation on Aug. 27 to make the case that — despite some shocking surprises (the rapid collapse of Afghan security forces, the ISIS-K suicide bombing) — the U.S. was in control of the situation.

He boasted that his administration carried out one of the biggest airlifts ever: “No nation has ever done anything like it in all of history.” He insisted “We were ready” when Afghan security forces gave up, the government collapsed and the Afghan president fled. Biden maintained that the U.S. military mission “was designed to operate under severe stress and attack, and that’s what it did.”

In President Biden’s view, the only vital interest the U.S. had in Afghanistan was to prevent another attack on our homeland and “we succeeded in what we set out to do.” Biden was attempting to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Democrats are counting on voters to see it that way a year from now — or else to no longer care about Afghanistan, which is what happened from 2003 to 2011 when Iraq shoved Afghanistan off the political agenda.

Democrats need to make the midterm a referendum on the policies Republicans are pursuing in the states: abolishing abortion rights, banning vaccination and masking mandates, restricting voting rights, opposing measures to fight climate change and relitigating Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election. Those are deeply unpopular policies.

The 2022 midterm is shaping up as a contest between two negatives: the fallout from the tragedy in Afghanistan and the fallout from GOP extremism.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of "Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable" (Simon & Schuster).