The Democratic message for the midterms appears to be “oh well, we tried”

Democrats have eight months to avoid catastrophic losses. They seem to have embraced doom instead.

Photo by Leon Neal - WPA Pool/Getty Images / Dewey Saunders
Iceberg, Dead Ahead!
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Forget Aaron Sorkin and his nauseatingly saccharine West Wing. Forget Veep and the perennial failings of the perpetually outgunned Selena Meyers. Forget Mr. Smith and Dave and wagging the dog. If you really want to understand the next eight months or so of American politics and the Democratic Party, look no further than Austin Powers. In particularly, look to the scene with the steamroller.

You know, this one:

This, more than any other piece of media today, best encapsulates where things stand with the party in power as it looks toward this coming November and the 2022 midterm elections. On one side, we have the slow approaching midterms, expected by just about every measure to be a total catastrophe for the Democrats’ tenuous control of Congress. On the other side we have the Democrats themselves, looking down the barrel of the aforementioned blowout — at this point accepted as fait accompli — yet seemingly content to simply stand still and yell about it rather than do anything that might move them out of harm’s way.

Led by a broadly disliked president who has largely opted to swallow defeat after (frequently self-inflicted) defeat in the name of civility, rather than aggressively pursue his sincerely popular promised agenda, the Democrats have begun assembling a circular firing squad in the hopes of somehow shooting themselves out of their complacency. Yet even Tuesday night, during Biden’s entirely fine first State of the Union address, it was clear that complacency still reigned; even as Democrats lined up to dutifully applaud, the business-as-usual aura Biden attempted to portray (at least, after a spirited first third of the speech spent talking about Russia and Ukraine, which garnered bipartisan applause) only served to underscore how typically uninspired the usual business often is. When he announced his pet name for his legislative agenda moving forward during the speech (“I call it building a better America”), it was hard not to hear it as both an admission of failure for his now-defunct BBB plan as well as an inability to fully abandon it, either.

This is the Democrats’ problem distilled in a single moment: They understand that something has to change, but make only a halfhearted effort to do so. And even though there’s no single source of this self-imposed paralysis, it’s hard not to notice the White House’s muddled, indecisive messaging emanating throughout a party largely unwilling to get ahead of its leadership.

Democrats are basically expending a lot of energy to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic before the ship even hits the iceberg, when they actually still have plenty of time to turn the helm.

“Biden’s the star quarterback, and you can’t fire the star quarterback, so you start looking at the head coach and the offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator,” one lawmaker who spoke with NBC News suggested recently, explaining his reasoning for wanting to oust White House Chief of Staff Ronald Klain as part of a reboot ahead of the midterms. “Fairly or unfairly in a situation like this, you start looking at the person who is in the chief of staff position.”

“A sign of a good leader and a successful executive is to identify the policies or personnel choices that have not resulted in success and make necessary course corrections — because it’s too important not to,” centrist Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy (Fla.) also told NBC News (emphasis mine).

The implication here — that it’s simply the wrong people, or worse, the wrong policies that are to blame for the Democrats’ presumed midterm calamity — seems reasonable at first glance. Things aren’t working? Change the things, and the people, so they’ll work better next time! But that logic falls apart when you consider that many things at risk of being “corrected” in Murphy’s estimation are generally well-liked — and that she herself is one of the Democrats who first helped dilute Biden’s ambitious first-year agenda by contributing one of the thousand fatal papercuts that ultimately left it a moribund mess.

Yet intra-party obstructionism, both in Murphy’s House but more forcefully in the Senate, pales in comparison to the conservative opprobrium that has become such an unyielding monolith against anything resembling progress. It seems to fade into the background as a taken-for-granted truth, but it’s worth calling it what it really is: senseless obstructionism animated by the MAGAfication of the GOP. This would, in and of itself, be bad enough, but in the face of Biden’s painfully hokey efforts to make a deal, the notion that this can all be solved by a staff shuffle or a light rebranding is all the more laughable. Democrats are basically expending a lot of energy to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic before the ship even hits the iceberg, when they actually still have plenty of time to turn the helm.

Consider, for example, a recent Washington Post report on a flurry of petty infighting within the Biden administration over whether or not to publicly make the extremely popular, deeply obvious case that corporate greed is behind the recently skyrocketing inflation rates.

“It’s been the war of the ‘track changes’ inside the administration,” one source explained to the Post, referencing the Google Docs feature that follows multiple authors’ changes in a single work. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the frantic paralysis gripping the administration. Despite overwhelming evidence that anti-corporate greed messaging resonates very strongly with broad swaths of the American public, the White House is stuck having an intense, polite debate over whether to say so.

Biden’s newfound laser-focus on [inflation] is a sign that his ... political outlook is shaped as much by external factors as by internal motivations.

Meanwhile, Biden’s poll numbers continue to plummet. “You have a whole cross section of folks who found [Donald] Trump unacceptable as president, just from a personality and ethics standpoint,” Stewart Verdery, a former assistant homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush, told The Hill. Yet “those people have turned on Biden because of day-to-day quality of life issues like filling up the grocery cart, being able to walk down the street, having my kids in school learning.”

Biden acknowledged those quality of life issues in his State of the Union address, intoning that “too many families are struggling to keep up with their bills. Inflation is robbing them of gains they thought otherwise they'd be able to feel.”

“I get it,” he continued. “That's why my top priority is getting prices under control.”

It’s a message aimed directly at “ordinary” Americans, meant to counter the concern that they’ve been lost in the shuffle of circumstance, between COVID and war in Ukraine and any other number of issues that are seen as detracting from the very real pain families feel at the ebb and flow of the country’s economic fortunes. But while fighting surging inflation rates may be a legitimate part of any president’s agenda, Biden’s newfound laser-focus on it is a sign that his — and by extension, the Democrats’ — political outlook is shaped as much by external factors as by internal motivations, if not more so. “Getting prices under control” may sound good to people who are sincerely worried about their bank accounts, but it’s hardly the sort of thing that denotes a strong, forward-looking, decisive party. This is governing from a reactive crouch, rather than a proactive sense of purpose.

President Biden during his State of the Union address on March 1, 2022.

Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images

To be clear, there are historical and sociological precedents that stand as headwinds against any Democratic hope to retain their slim majorities in the House and Senate. The opposition party — this year, Republicans — has picked up at least five seats in 90% of the midterm elections held over the past century and a half, while Democratic congressional retirements outstrip Republican ones by an order of magnitude for this legislative season.

Still, there’s a sense that after the Trump years, Democrats appeared content to simply be “not that” rather than actually making a strong case for what they actually do represent. (Whether the Democratic Party truly represents its alleged values to begin with, of course, is a whole other question.) The lack of clear, direct, and appealing messaging has persisted even as Republicans rack up win after win in their overarching effort to game the electoral system in their favor, for good. And with Republicans eager to turn the midterms — and eventually the next presidential race — into a referendum on the Biden administration specifically, the indecisive hemming and hawing only serves to dim Democratic electoral prospects as a whole.

“I don’t think the Democratic Party as a whole is prioritizing this issue and its potential damage in the way that they should,” Doug Herman, a former campaign strategist for President Barack Obama, mused to Politico. “We just went through an insurrection that was stoked by voter fraud lies, and the reaction to that from the Republican Party is to restrict the voting process so severely that only their voters can participate.”

“I don’t understand the lack of fierce resistance to that from Americans and Democrats,” Herman added.

The fact is, the American political process is pretty badly broken. Simply expecting the normal cycle of wins and losses to repeat itself at this point is folly, and the Democrats — sensing a massive defeat looming — don’t seem to understand that simply waving their arms and making a fuss isn’t going to cut it anymore. If the party has any interest in maintaining relevance and influence from here on out, it’s going to have to do more than approach the midterms in a state of panicked paralysis. If Democrats can’t muster the energy and insight to do that, then they deserve everything that’s headed their way.