Trading victory for defeat
The Democrats will have themselves to blameSunday, October 10, 2021
There is a real possibility of the Democrats losing control of both Houses of Congress in the US midterm elections due 13 months from now. That would leave US President Joe Biden and his agenda marooned in the White House. It would make his re-election or the election of his Democratic replacement a taller order than it has to be. The Democrats would have no one to blame but themselves.
Biden won the election last year with a popular vote majority of seven million and an electoral college advantage of 306 to 232. But the maths behind those numbers are shaky. Seventy-eight of those electoral college votes came from states that he won by a margin of less than three per cent. A swing of less than two per cent in those states would have rendered him a loser. In fact, a mere 43,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin — with their 37 electoral college votes — are all that prevented Donald Trump from getting a second term.
In last November's elections the Democrats had a net gain of three seats in the Senate, placing them level with the Republicans at 50 seats each. They control the Senate only by virtue of Vice-President Kamala Harris's casting vote. However, they suffered a net loss of nine seats in the House, reducing their majority there from 29 to 11.
Biden's ability to exert power and even deliver the promises on which he campaigned is, at best, tenuous. The filibuster rule in the Senate that requires a super majority to pass any significant legislation effectively gives the Republicans veto control of his agenda. The polarisation that exists today has all but obliterated the compromise and deal-making culture for which the executive and legislative branches of government were once known.
Against all these odds, if ever there was a time for the Democrats to huddle, work out their differences, and find a common purpose, it is now. What we are seeing is a discordant group comprised of various caucuses pursuing separate and often conflicting agendas.
Build back better
Biden has packed most of his “build back better” agenda into a massive US$3.5-trillion spending Bill. which he hopes to get passed while he has this sliver of a majority in both Houses of Congress and before the midterm elections next year. Barack Obama did precisely that with his Obamacare Bill, which expanded health coverage to 20 million more Americans and helped him to win re-election, albeit with a reduced majority. But Biden's “build back better” initiative is sputtering through the Congress.
The Republicans already have knives at the ready to shred it to pieces if they get their hands on it. The Democrats can avoid this by going the “reconciliation” route to circumvent a Republican filibuster. But the Democrats cannot reach agreement among themselves on the package and what it should cost. The moderate Democrats want it scaled back; the liberal Democrats contend that it is not even enough. The Progressive Caucus has threatened to not only withhold their considerable number of votes but to kill the Infrastructure Bill — the other significant element of Biden's agenda which he managed to get approved in the Senate — if they don't get their way.
Even if he overcomes the dilemma in the House, Biden cannot be sure of the support of two of his own Democratic senators – Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona. In fairness to both of them, they represent traditional “red” states that, with the exception of Arizona last year, have voted Republican in every presidential election for the last 25 years. They both have to tread carefully on issues that appear to be moving the needle to the left.
Ominous midterm elections
The Democrats seem to be setting themselves up to pay a huge price when the midterm elections are held next year. First-term presidents traditionally suffer setbacks in midterm elections, losing control of one or both Houses of Congress and impairing their ability to get things done. George W Bush is the only exception in the last 30 years and this was due largely to the popular support that his response to the 9/11 attack earned him.
Three of the Senate seats that are up for election next year and are currently held by Democrats were won by slim margins of less than three percent.
Public perception of Biden's performance since taking office offers no comfort. His job approval rating has taken a blow and is now below his disapproval rating. His initial success in slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus has waned. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan earned him no kudos, even though the majority of Americans wanted out.
The impasse with France, an important European ally, over the Australian nuclear submarine deal, is the kind of faux pas one associates with Trump, not with someone with the considerable foreign policy experience that Biden has. Respected political commentator Fareed Zakaria recently observed that, “Biden's foreign policy is a faithful continuation of Donald Trump's and a repudiation of Barack Obama's,” citing his actions or inaction in relation to trade, China, the Iran nuclear deal, and Cuba.
The Democrats are operating without a clear agenda and a defined political strategy. There seems to be no David Axelrod or David Plouffe around. The contending factions within are ignoring history and experience that show that the vast majority of independent voters, who are the final arbiters of election outcomes, are in the middle of the ideological spectrum and it is easier to pull from the extremities to the middle than vice versa.
History teaches lessons and it repeats those lessons for those who fail to learn.
Bruce Golding is a former prime minister of Jamaica.