Ten days is long enough to recover from a New Year’s Eve party no matter how extravagant it might be. Ten days is even long enough to finally realize that it’s true: 2021 is behind us, firmly, and it is now the glorious future of 2022. And in America, that means this is an election year.
Every year in America is an election year, technically, but every other year is a special year, because we get to re-elect all 435+/- members of the House of Representatives plus one-third of the senate plus a bunch of other state offices that are very important but not so important that we’re going to talk about them today.
This is the first midterm of the Biden presidency. It could also be the last, if Biden doesn’t run again in 2024 or he runs again but loses. Democrats are lining up to get the message out: more Democrats are needed, pronto. We need to help the president get his allies into Congress.
The problem, here in 2022, is that this is the same message Democrats have hawked for a generation. It essentially boils down to “you need to vote for the Democrats because otherwise the Republicans will win,” with the understand – explicit or implicit – that Republican victory is bad.
- the housing crisis is caused by federal mandates that lenders provide loans to “specific groups” who can’t afford home loans;
- “five unelected lawyers robbed 320 million Americans of their legitimate constitutional authority to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman” (not to be confused with the four unelected lawyers opposing same-sex marriage);
- the IRS is “toxic”, girl go off; and
- federally-backed student loans should be entirely eliminated and replaced with private, for-profit student lending.
If you’re not a person of color, a queer person, or a poor person (efforts to weaken the IRS almost always mean the IRS won’t go after wealthy tax evaders), the GOP platform probably looks fine. It even includes a paragraph calling for statehood for Puerto Rico, something the party hasn’t been remotely willing to act on. For marginalized groups, though, it’s fairly obvious that Republicans pose a real threat to day-to-day life.
Upon taking office in January 2021, Joe Biden undid a cacophony of weak changes under the Trump administration – most the result of executive orders. It was a flurry of activity that ended quite abruptly. By the conclusion of his first month, Biden had almost nothing new to show.
2021 crawled along. Biden’s biggest victory came with a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that didn’t hit his desk until November. Low COVID-19 cases throughout the summer and early fall masked a coming wave so well that the administration pushed ahead on plans to restart student loan payments in February before delaying to May as it became apparent that the omicron variant of COVID-19 would be devastating.
Biden campaigned on a promise to forgive up to $10,000 in federal student loans per borrower, but he’s since refused to do so without congressional authorization (it is unclear if the president has the power to forgive student loans without congressional approval, but advocates, including former labor secretary Robert Reich, say he does). He tied his campaign slogan “Build Back Better” to a landmark bill that would have funded clean energy and climate change mitigation plans, boosted child tax credits, strengthened the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and Medicaid, and funded new housing development. The bill was carefully crafted to pass through Congress on a narrow party-line vote but it capsized on the rocky shoals of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s heart when he demanded the bill be cut by more than half and then refused to vote for that version, too.
Cresting the new year, Joe Biden could see that November is going to be an absolute disaster for Democrats. Democrats basically hold the senate on a technically, with Joe Manchin (who votes less frequently with the party than theoretical independents like Angus King and Bernie Sanders) blocking all but the most necessary legislation to fund the government. This year, they need to defend Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Rev. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, while hoping desperately that they can secure Pennsylvania’s senate seat. Pennsylvania is virtually the only shot Democrats have to pick up a seat, unless they can pull off a miracle in North Carolina (both seats are currently held by Republicans who are retiring). In the House, the Dems have a narrow majority; if they lose four seats, they lose control of Congress.
Presidents almost always lose their midterm races. But what is so dire about this year is that Democrats have very little to campaign on and an awful lot to try to hide. A broken promise on student loan forgiveness. A botched effort to pass signature legislation. A viral pandemic that is out of control (and the president himself saying that the federal government can’t do anything about it).
Voters find themselves frustrated by Biden and by congressional Democrats, who seem unable to govern despite their majority. The message Democrats should put out is, quite simply, that it takes a lot more Democrats to make the federal government work than it takes Republicans to jam it up. The filibuster lets forty-one Republicans block fifty-nine Democrats, and even a simple majority lets fifty Republicans and Joe Manchin stop forty-nine Democrats from eliminating the filibuster. It takes a lot of allies to make things happen, and Democrats have a start but not the whole enchilada.
This is certainly a tough message to hear. A single vote is not enough, voting is a frequent, grueling exercise. A single Democrat is not enough, either. It takes an army of legislators, an army that the Democrats just don’t have.
Yet, Republicans are often able to do more with less. Trump simply turned to executive orders (the “easy way out,” he once lamented) when it became clear Democrats in Congress could block his agenda. A lot of those executive orders fell in court, but not all of them. Biden hasn’t been willing to embrace the same route, even to accomplish something popular like student loan forgiveness (which over 60% of voters support).
Instead, Biden has tried to negotiate, unsuccessfully. And then, he’s hoped that he can pin the blame on folks like Joe Manchin. It’s valid: Manchin blocks Biden’s agenda constantly, and he should be tossed out of office. But Biden can’t figure out a way around Manchin, so what’s the point?
The point, Democrats plead, is that the alternative is worse. Republicans will make things worse. Democrats will keep things at the current level of bad. Democrats are the devil you know. That’s the only pitch now. Support Democrats, because otherwise the other guys will make your life hell instead of purgatory.
People don’t necessarily feel comfortable putting pen to paper to vote for “bad things continue to happen, but they are not as bad as they could be if the other guys win.” They will simply not vote. Potential Democratic voters will feel no pull to the ballot box when the outcome feels irrelevant. If Democrats cannot make legislative gains while they control Congress, they will continue to not make legislative gains while they don’t control Congress. The result is the same either way.
Democrats have nine months to go to make their case that the country would be better off if they had a true majority in both houses. The only way to make that case, though, is to give voters a taste of what that might mean. We were told to vote in 2020 to make things better, and things have not gotten better. We cannot be told in 2022 to vote or else things will get worse.