There's still a chance for Democrats — if they don't screw it up

There's still a chance for Democrats — if they don't screw it up
© Greg Nash

Buck up Congressional Democrats, you’ve still got a shot at keeping your Congressional majority next year — unless you screw it up.

Many still are in shock over last week's election results.

They should be.

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There is a path to recovery. It starts with passing the child, heath care, climate bill — on top of the just approved infrastructure measure. Next, the party's left wing needs to recognize the public is not with them on any radical agenda, like defunding the police or open borders. Then the centrists should stop posturing over worries about short-term deficits.

Let's reprise Ronald Reagan: The deficit is big enough to take care of itself.

If the social spending bill fails, Democrats will look — and will be — dysfunctional: Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyEffort to overhaul archaic election law wins new momentum Watch: GOP leaders discuss Biden's first year in office House GOP leaders vow to end proxy voting despite widespread Republican use MORE (R-Calif.) could start measuring the drapes in House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems look to repackage BBB into salvageable bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden clarifies his remarks on Russia Democrats hope to salvage Biden's agenda on Manchin's terms  MORE's (D-Calif.) office, as could all the would-be GOP House committee chairs.

If successful, however, there are political winners: more resources for roads, bridges and rural broadband; universal pre-K; lowering prescription drug prices, and investments in clean energy.

Republicans want to talk about the huge size of these measures and rising inflation. Democrats need to stress how the specifics would improve the lives of many American voters —both red and blue.

This contrasts with the situations in 1994 and 2010, the last two midterms at the start of a Democratic presidency; in both, Democrats were clobbered. Already, parallels are being drawn to 2022.

But in 1994, President Clinton's major initiative, overhauling health care, was rejected by a Democratic Congress; after winning control in Washington for the first time in a dozen years, the Democrats looked like they couldn't do anything.

In 2010, Obamacare passed, but voters worried more about what they might lose than what they might gain. It was only years later that the Affordable Health Care Act became popular — as long as you didn’t call it “Obamacare.” Also, the 2009 financial crisis rescue, which may have prevented a depression, was seen as more of a big spending sop to the banks.

In both those elections, the economy was starting to bounce back — but the voters’ perceptions lagged behind the reality. 

The outlook for 2022 is for an economy surging for the second straight year. With the robust October jobs report, the unemployment rate has dropped to 4.6 percent, wages grew. The jobless rate is expected to fall below 4 percent by the middle of next year.

Inflation, to be sure, worries voters. It will be less of a problem if Goldman Sachs is right and the pace of inflation next year continually drops to about 2.5 percent in the fall.

On the pandemic front, the news is encouraging: The numbers are trending down — despite some irrational or politically motivated resisters— and vaccines and treatments are plentiful. Some experts predict by early next year COVID-19 will more resemble the flu than the ordeal we've suffered through for more than a year and a half.

In Congress, there still will be tough and delicate negotiations between the Democratic factions over whether to include paid parental leave and liberalizing immigration — both of which may be casualties in a final version — and whether to increase federal income tax deductions for state and local tax payments; ironically, a measure aimed at those who've been left behind or are struggling, this tax provision primarily benefits the affluent.

Pelosi, who worked her political magic in getting the infrastructure bill approved — with President BidenJoe BidenNew York woman arrested after allegedly spitting on Jewish children Former Sen. Donnelly confirmed as Vatican ambassador Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE's help — will figure out a way to do it again, despite only a three-vote margin. Senate Democratic leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Predictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure Voting rights and Senate wrongs MORE (D-N.Y.) will have to cut a deal with Joe ManchinJoe ManchinLawmaker arrested amid voting rights protest says he'd 'do it again' No Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way WATCH: The Hill recaps the top stories of the week MORE (D-W.Va.) to accept most of a House bill — and he’ll have to outmaneuver Senate Republican efforts to sidetrack the bill.

The Democratic left can't let the perfect be the enemy of the very good. (I'd like to see a liberalized immigration policy, with a pathway to citizenship, and dramatically better treatment of those trying to enter through the southern border — but the politics are lethal; Democrats need to be careful.)

Some progressives are upset that the child tax credit, up to $3,600 a year, is only temporarily — rather than permanently — extended. Even if this current law expires in a few years, it will revert to a $2,000 credit, originally a Republican proposal. Most important, the current version would make permanent the refundability, meaning it goes to poor families who don't pay sufficient taxes to get a credit; this is what promises to lift millions more out of poverty.

There are other urgent challenges facing Democrats.

They will be at a real disadvantage in a handful of states that have enacted voter suppression measures, unless Congress passes a voting rights bill before Christmas. Separately, they have to respond to charges about critical race theory, which really is a right-wing racial dog whistle.

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Here's the probable 2022 environment: enactment of the most sweeping domestic legislation since the Great Society — good politics as well as good policy — a booming economy, and a normalized pandemic.

That would put them in better shape next November than last week.

Unless they screw it up.

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.