Parties already playing games over votes. But will it matter in 2022?

In turbulent times, gamesmanship over killer votes and bombshell amendments is futile

House Democrats talk to reporters Friday after meeting with President Joe Biden on his COVID-19 relief plan. Opposing the $1.9 trillion measure, they say, will hurt Republicans, but 2022 may not be a normal political year, Shapiro writes.  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
House Democrats talk to reporters Friday after meeting with President Joe Biden on his COVID-19 relief plan. Opposing the $1.9 trillion measure, they say, will hurt Republicans, but 2022 may not be a normal political year, Shapiro writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Posted February 9, 2021 at 6:00am

It is a truism that we live in unprecedented political times.

Just this year we have witnessed an assault on the Capitol; the second impeachment of Donald Trump; the most muted presidential inauguration since World War II; and the rollout of the most urgent vaccination program in American history.

That and so much more all happened in little more than five weeks. But the prevailing mood in both parties on Capitol Hill is that the 2022 congressional elections will follow predictable contours — and once again uphold the power of voice-of-doom negative TV ads.

As CQ Roll Call’s Bridget Bowman reported, Senate Republicans are thrilled that they forced vulnerable Democrats to cast theoretically problematic votes on undocumented immigrants and expanding the size of the Supreme Court during the marathon balloting on the budget resolution.

Biden aides and congressional Democrats claim to be convinced that Republicans will pay a lasting political price for opposing the president’s $1.9 trillion stimulus. As Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey told Politico, “If I’m a candidate in 2022 running for the House or Senate, I think I’d want to be able to say we’ve had a robust COVID-19 relief package.”

Abnormal times

These political calculations might make sense if there were any guarantee that 2022 will be a bounce-back-to-normal political year.

But before you start citing polls and precedents, it is important to stress how much we don’t know about political life 21 months into the future.

Will the pandemic be tamed as masks are limited to costume balls and Americans try to relive the Roaring ’20s? Or will caution still be warranted as vaccines battle with new strains of the virus?

The economy may come roaring back when consumers are finally able to comfortably return to restaurants, airlines and prime vacation spots. Or we may sadly realize that major segments of the economy — like malls and in-person shopping — may never fully recover.

It’s not just the pandemic and its impossible to calculate aftereffects.

Nothing is more unpredictable than Trump’s political role in 2022 and beyond.

Will he intervene heavily in GOP primaries — as he has threatened — complicating life for such Republicans as John Thune and Liz Cheney? Will Republicans in open-seat races have to make the pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago for a Trumpian blessing, even if it would cost them support among suburban and college-educated voters?

It is not hard to envision Trump turning 2022 campaign rallies for Republican candidates into a nonstop airing of grievances. You could also imagine Trump sulking and golfing in Mar-a-Lago for the entire campaign.

The Democrats have their own potential problems with internal divisions. Frustrated by the filibuster and Joe Biden’s moderate instincts, left-wing Democrats may launch their own wave of primary challenges. For example, nothing would more complicate life in a 50-50 Senate than if Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had to battle Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a New York primary.

Handicapping the 2022 House races is a mug’s game since redistricting has not even begun because of the delayed census.

Old rules still apply?

There is also a larger question: Is it an unalterable law of politics that the president’s party loses congressional seats in its first midterm election?

History would suggest that the Republicans would take control of both chambers of Congress in 2022.

But does the combination of the pandemic and Trumpism make historical precedents somewhat irrelevant? Remember that in the Bill Clinton impeachment year of 1998, the Democrats held their own in the Senate and actually gained House seats.

Polls also offer an uncertain window on the political mood. Senate and House polling was a disaster in 2020 — missing Republican congressional gains and creating the illusion that Senate races in states like Maine were competitive for the Democrats.

These are not normal cautions about the murky future. Rather, politics and voting behavior may have become more volatile than at any time since the Depression.

If true, all the standard tactics of political gamesmanship will prove irrelevant in 2022. Even attack ads, so beloved by campaign consultants, may be losing their potency at a time of crisis and cynicism about all political claims.

Yes, it is possible that Biden’s return to normalcy may carry over to the 2022 elections. And the trends outlined above may, in effect, cancel each out.

Even if that were to happen (and color me doubtful), both parties already come armed with enough congressional votes to blanket the airwaves with negative spots.

The Republicans — unable to shake their addiction to Trumpism — already offer a target-rich environment for Democrats.

Even a fledging media consultant knows how to use 2021 GOP votes rejecting the electoral vote count and supporting Marjorie Taylor Greene to portray the Republicans as the party of QAnon extremism.

Any Republican admaker who wants to depict the Democrats as the party of free-spending extravagance need only point to their congressional votes in favor of the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan.

As a result, neither party needs to resort to legislative gimmicks to make potentially persuasive political arguments during the 2022 campaigns. There is enough grist from the first five weeks of the congressional session to last a decade.

In an ideal world, this awareness would lift the tenor of congressional debates and legislative fights for the next two years. In the real world, nothing will change as campaign aides continue to chortle over forcing the other side to cast killer votes.

But the hope remains — futile though it may be — that everyone who practices legislative gamesmanship will realize that they are doing it out habit rather than out of any realistic belief that it will be effective in November 2022.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.