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Inflation dooms Dems' midterm chances, so they should pass as much as they can now

With the political situation looking increasingly bleak, Democrats have only one real option: pass their agenda.
Photo illustration: A close-up of a donkey surrounded by blue and yellow colored post-it notes which have lists and scribbles on them.
If the midterm elections go as predicted, Democrats don't have much time to advance their agenda.Anjali Nair / MSNBC

I have some bad news for Democrats: As bad as things seem now, they’realmost certainly going to get worse.

Democrats would be better off acknowledging the reality that the midterm elections are going to be a bloodbath.

The Labor Department released its latest Consumer Price Index report this week, and the numbers are ugly. Inflation hit 8.5 percent — the fastest one-year surge in prices since Ronald Reagan’s first year as president. Much of the increase is being driven by a sharp rise in gasoline prices and the price increases from pandemic-related supply chain disruptions.

Whatever the reason, however, the political fallout is less of a mystery. It’s precisely the kind of news that will compound the Democrats’ political woes in November, which already looked dire. Rather than fight the prevailing political winds, Democrats would be better off acknowledging the reality that the midterm elections are going to be a bloodbath and focus instead on accomplishing as much as possible before then — the politics be damned.

Perhaps this argument is a bit overdetermined. Maybe Democrats can find a path to keep their majorities in the House and the Senate. Anything is possible, but don’t bet on it.

To maintain their narrow congressional advantage of 12 seats in the House and a tie in the Senate, Democrats would need to outrun history. Traditionally, the party in power fares poorly in midterm elections and has, since World War II, lost an average of 26 House seats. Democrats would need to lose only seven to lose the House. The exceptions, in 1998 and 2002, were attributed to perceived Republican overreach in impeaching President Bill Clinton and to President George W. Bush’s relatively high poll numbers. That scenario is unlikely to play out in 2022, if only because President Joe Biden is incredibly unpopular.

According to an average of polling results, Biden’s approval rating is at 40.9 percent — more than 11 points below his disapproval rate of 52.3 percent. That’s actually worse than President Donald Trump’s approval ratings at a similar point in his presidency. That year, Republicans lost 40 seats in the House.

Since 1994, as the country has become more deeply polarized, the president’s approval rating has become the most useful predictor of midterm success or failure. In 1998 and 2002, Clinton and Bush respectively were both above 60 percent. But in every other election, the incumbent was below 50 percent.

The president’s approval rating has become the most useful predictor of midterm success or failure.

The generic congressional ballot doesn’t provide much room for optimism, either: Republicans have a lead of more than 3 points.

As G. Elliott Morris, a data journalist at The Economist, put it to me, “there are a lot of predictive indicators of how the midterm elections will go — some of them very accurate — and none of them are good for Democrats.”

Hopeful Democrats might be inclined to argue that things can get better before November, but again history isn’t on their side. Generally, if a president is doing poorly at the beginning of the year, attitudes don’t change before Election Day.

Again, anything is possible. Historical trends can be broken. Considering the weakness of the GOP’s Senate recruiting class — there are likely to be inexperienced, first-time candidates in Georgia and Pennsylvania — there are flickering reasons for hope, and with so few competitive House seats this year because of redistricting, Democrats may be able to limit their losses.

What if Democrats are able to somehow win over Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and persuade them to support Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda? Wouldn’t that rally their base and build support going into November?

As was the case in midterm elections after Obamacare passed or to go further back, in 1982 after President Reagan passed his legislative agenda or even 1966 when Democrats pushed through their Great Society agenda, generally speaking voters don’t reward politicians for passing legislation they support, and, if anything, passage of Biden’s agenda could have the opposite effect: further rallying already energized Republicans to vote the party line in November. Though it’s not as if Republicans need even more incentive to cast ballots.

With the political situation looking increasingly bleak, Democrats have only one real option: pass their agenda. While there may be some political upside, the bigger and more important reason is that it's the right thing to do. After all, it's the reason voters elected them in November 2020.

Generally speaking, voters don’t reward politicians for passing legislation they support.

Of course, passing Biden’s agenda is easier said than done, what with Manchin and Sinema continuing to play the role of congressional sticks in the mud. But at this point, Democrats should basically push to pass any legislation the two recalcitrant senators are willing to support. It’s pretty much their only hope of enacting any of their agenda by November.

Biden, also, can act on his own. The liberal magazine The American Prospect has outlined a litany of executive actions Biden could take to enact parts of his stalled agenda. For example, he could fight climate change by immediately ending all drilling and mining on federal lands — though in the context of increasingly rising oil prices that will be a tough one to consider. He could enact regulations to restrict dangerous pollutants and even declare a climate emergency. He can unilaterally create federal parks and protected lands and even tear down parts of Trump’s border wall.

He could use the authority provided by the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act to seize patent licenses for prescription drugs developed by universities, nonprofits and small businesses operating under federal contracts and redistribute those licenses to drug manufacturers who can produce and sell them at lower prices — thus lowering some drug costs for consumers (though previously the administration has downplayed the idea).

Perhaps above all, he could try to unilaterally forgive thousands of dollars in student debt, thus providing an economic lifeline to young college graduates.

All these measures would be controversial — and likely spark a political backlash. Some may not survive judicial review or could be overturned by a future Congress. But at this point in Biden’s presidency, his back is to the wall, and his dreams of having an FDR-like presidency are fading away the closer we get to November. If Republicans do take over even just the House in November, Biden’s domestic agenda will, for all intents and purposes, be dead in the water. He might as well try to achieve what he can now — and do so before Election Day in the fleeting hope that it might minimize his party’s midterm losses.

But Democrats would also help themselves by remembering why most of them ran for office and got elected in the first place: to get things done. By their nature, politicians do things for political reasons, and the ultimate goal of any elected official is to get elected again. But Democrats, unlike Republicans, actually believe in the power of government to help the American people. If they aren’t passing legislation and trying to lower drug prices, increase access to health care, save the planet from the ravages of climate change, raise families out of poverty or help the middle class, then what is the point of electing Democrats in the first place?

Spending the next 6½ months pushing a progressive policy agenda may not save the party come November, but sometimes there are bigger considerations than just the next election. And it’s not as if they have much hope anyway.