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Walking Dead

The Democrats Are Frozen With Fear of the Midterm Voter

With poll numbers growing more dire by the day, the party needs to shake off its torpor and remind people what it stands for.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer

The Democrats, it seems, are in big trouble. With the midterms less than six months away, the party is deeply unpopular. Polling released by NBC on Monday found its favorability rating was underwater by 19 points—eight points worse than the GOP’s, which is currently engaged in a contest to see which of its members can say the most insane thing without losing the party’s support. Even more ominously, the Democratic Party is doing three points worse than Donald Trump.

Speaking of the former president, Joe Biden’s approval has stalled out in the low 40s. That’s where Trump himself spent most of his presidency, which proved disastrous for his party. The generic ballot, an indicator of midterm voting preferences, has somewhat better news for the party: Republicans currently hold a 3.5 percent lead. That may seem modest—and it is—but it’s also broadly in line with wave elections in the past. In 2010, for instance, Democrats led at this point in the calendar—and then got wiped out in November.

The Democratic Party’s response to this conundrum is tried and true: Do as little as possible. Fearing even more electoral backlash, party leaders have instead responded with cautious eggshell-stepping, petrified of alienating voters any further—the political equivalent of playing dead. Naturally, some structural reasons impinge: Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are still in the Senate, after all, and they have kept the party’s legislative agenda in dry dock for months. But the inertia extends well beyond the legislative branch. For months, the administration—and Democrats across the country—have proven squeamish when confronted with pressing problems, from inflation or student loans to the imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade.

In recent days, Democrats have pivoted to highlighting the extent of GOP extremism, pinning some hope to the idea that voters might be inspired to vote for Democrats as a bulwark against what party elites are calling the GOP’s “ultra MAGA” tendencies. Ironically, Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter has been a boon for Republicans. Prior to being kicked off the platform, Trump constantly made himself visible and drew attention to the party’s rampant authoritarianism. He’s been comparatively out of the spotlight since leaving office—media coverage has rarely, if ever, approached the hysterical levels it did during his first campaign or presidency. The return of regular reminders of Trump’s brand of controversy and chaos, the thinking goes, might help voters recall the extent to which Republicans have lost touch with reality.

One problem with this theory, as I argued recently, is that Republicans hardly need Trump’s assistance—they are barely disguising their illiberalism as it is. Voters know the score. The public has manifested its disgust with the GOP at the polls in recent cycles—the wave election in 2018 and the election of Biden in 2020 were both, in their own way, rejections. But if rejecting the GOP for its tone and tenor was sufficient to win elections, the polling numbers Democrats are facing wouldn’t be nearly as dire. Democrats have to stake some claim beyond the familiar “the other guys are nuts” ripostes that have helped them get by on negative partisanship. Democrats need some assets on the ledger to go along with the GOP’s liabilities.

Early in the Biden administration, the party put down some clear markers: The daily nonsense of Trump’s tenure would recede into calm; there would be a strong focus on vaccine distribution and “reopening” the country; a country reeling from Covid-19’s ravages would get economic support. Since the summer, however—and particularly after the disastrous, though ultimately justified, withdrawal from Afghanistan—Democrats have been stuck in a muddle. The Build Back Better Act, the cornerstone of the administration’s agenda, has been stymied by Manchin and Sinema. While it may technically remain alive, it has been stalled for six months and is not likely ever to become law. Voting rights have similarly been stalled. The right has succeeded, once again, in turning immigration into a campaign issue, but Democrats have struggled to articulate the extremism of the GOP’s position.

What people remember about these failed initiatives is that they foundered amid Democratic infighting. Democrats sabotaged their own legislation either through internecine conflict or hapless negotiations; at times, the party’s support for the Senate filibuster sent the message that the measures trapped behind the arcane rule weren’t real priorities for the party. It’s hard to say what your values are if you’re not getting anything done—it’s especially hard when Democrats are more invested in kicking in the teeth of their own left flank than they are in taking the Republicans to task. Meanwhile, all of this internal dysfunction lets the GOP off the hook—that it opposes some popular ideas is a mere footnote in the larger “Dems in disarray” discourse. Taken as a whole, the Democratic Party’s own vision for the country—what it would agree to do if given more power—is getting obfuscated, and voters are on the verge of rejecting it.

The expiration of the child tax credit, one of the most successful tools in reversing child poverty in recent history, has been an emblematic disaster. Failing to secure the continued expanded child tax credit robbed the party of something to run on; the fact that those in the party were perceived to have failed to come to an agreement among themselves meant that the GOP skated on being blamed for the credit’s demise—in fact, the former recipients of the expanded credit have swung back to supporting Republicans, according to recent polling. The party’s failure to secure additional funding for next-generation vaccines and other pandemic mitigation measures is similarly disastrous, particularly as Covid-19 continues to kill hundreds of Americans every day.

It goes without saying that passing popular agenda items would be the ideal thing to do; but if Manchin and Sinema’s intransigence hadn’t prevented the Democrats from a parade of legislative accomplishments in the first place, Democrats wouldn’t be staring at a looming disaster, and the upcoming midterms wouldn’t be inspiring such reticence among the party’s electeds. As it stands, the available options aren’t ideal: Democrats can force the GOP to vote against popular ideas; they won’t get passed, but it will make Republicans sign their name to their own intransigence. Biden can also utilize executive orders to stem the policy drift and deliver statements of intent—and perhaps stage further showdowns with a Supreme Court that’s losing favor with the public.

None of this is a substitute for an enacted agenda. But actions speak louder than words, and Democrats need to be speaking very loudly about their values and ideas, and casting GOP obstruction—not Democratic dysfunction—as the impediment to progress. There might not be enough time to turn things around for the midterms, but Democrats shouldn’t discount that what they do now might be important to saving their fortunes in 2024—especially if they believe that Republican misrule is as bad for the country as they’ve been saying.