If, as polls suggest, Democrats end up losing control of Congress next Tuesday an urgent postmortem would be required. Joe Biden has rightly said Americans “can’t take democracy for granted any longer”. Election denialism has spread rapidly among Republicans since the January 6 2021 storming of the Capitol and injects existential doubt into the 2024 presidential election. Yet if midterm voters nevertheless ignore the president’s warnings, he will have to go back to the drawing board.
There is nothing misleading about Biden’s diagnosis of the threat to the future of the republic. But he must take the median US voter’s concerns as his starting point. America’s middle is preoccupied with “kitchen table” issues, notably sharply rising inflation, crime and illegal immigration. Democrats must treat these concerns with the utmost seriousness if they want voters in turn to take their warnings seriously. The dilemma is stark: a majority of voters agree that US democracy is imperilled, yet democracy does not rank high on their list of concerns.
It would be negligent to berate them for getting their priorities wrong. The whole point of democracy is that it is voters who give politicians their marching orders, not the other way round. The clear message to Democrats is that they must govern from the centre. At key points in the past two years, Biden’s Democrats have swung too far to the left. The cultural signalling from the party’s progressive wing smacks of campus disdain for the less educated. That has to stop. Implying that large chunks of the country are hidebound or immoral is electoral malpractice.
One driver of Democrats’ declining popularity has been the shift of Hispanics to the Republicans. Polls show that Hispanic voters are just as concerned about illegal border crossings as everyone else. Their anxieties are similar to other Americans’. The Democratic party’s instinctive habit of tailoring messages for arbitrarily assigned groups is suffering from diminishing returns. Voters of all stripes have economic pessimism in common. This will only become truer as the economy faces a likely recession between now and 2024.
So what should Biden do? A wholly or partially Republican-controlled Congress will try to sink the second half of his presidency. Republican over-reach is almost guaranteed. The party has no solution to inflation and would indeed make it worse by seeking to pass large tax cuts. These would almost certainly be vetoed by Biden. But he needs to spell out what Democrats would do instead. Large spending bills would be equally inflationary. There is no doubt that Biden’s $1.9tn American Rescue Plan Act has contributed to rising prices. The reality is that fighting inflation will be almost entirely in the hands of the US Federal Reserve. But Democrats must show they grasp popular concern about runaway prices.
Once the midterm results have sunk in, the focus will quickly shift to the question of whether Biden and Trump will run again. If the latter declares, as seems likely, Biden will probably follow. That would set up a macabre rematch of 2020 in which Biden would not necessarily hold the advantage this time. Indeed, his poll ratings are often below Trump’s. The best domestic strategy Biden can pursue in a situation of divided government is signal that he has control of his party. He should show zero tolerance for its “defund the police” wing and demonstrate over and again his focus on the economic trials of the median American.
The only way Democrats can safeguard the republic is by winning elections. That means actually listening to voters. Telling them “it’s the democracy, stupid” is by itself not enough.