Democrats’ deepening dilemma

Missteps, infighting threaten to shape their messaging

President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer are seen in the Capitol in July. Democrats are struggling to unify their party around Biden’s agenda, Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer are seen in the Capitol in July. Democrats are struggling to unify their party around Biden’s agenda, Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 21, 2021 at 12:00pm

ANALYSIS California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall victory aside, Democrats have had a difficult past few weeks and now find themselves in an increasingly tricky political position. 

No, I’m not referring to President Joe Biden’s job approval rating in national polls, which has dropped noticeably in recent weeks. Those survey results reflect the impact of the coronavirus’s delta variant, growing questions about the longer-term impact of COVID-19 on the economy and, to a lesser extent, recent developments in Afghanistan.

Surrounded by bad news, it’s not surprising that Biden’s job approval rating has fallen from the low to mid-50s in June and July to the 40s in late August and September.

But it’s still about 13 months until the midterms, and the public’s views on those matters could change — which would impact Biden’s standing one way or the other. 

More importantly, Republicans have plenty of time to do what they now do best — act like sociopaths who are willing to ignore the rule of law and replace it with the rule of former President Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

But almost everywhere they look, Democrats find fundamental challenges, along with roadblocks and pitfalls.

A rocky landscape

With Republicans doing their best to cause chaos, Biden stumbling too frequently for his own good and virtually no margin for error in the Senate and the House, Democrats face a difficult next few weeks and months.

Congressional Democrats may eventually pass both an infrastructure bill and a much more expensive reconciliation measure, but not before West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, House Democratic pragmatists and party progressives give each other indigestion.

If Democrats succeed in enacting the White House’s agenda, they will have dramatic accomplishments that would both boost party morale and demonstrate they delivered on their promises, many of which are popular with the American public.

But trillions of dollars of additional spending, higher taxes, an increase in the debt ceiling and a more expansive government would also open Democratic officeholders to GOP attacks in politically competitive states and districts.

Even worse, if Democrats fail to deliver on infrastructure and/or reconciliation (most likely because party moderates and progressives can’t agree on bottom-line spending), Biden will look weak. That outcome would fuel the narrative that Democrats are divided and ineffectual, which would severely damage the party’s midterm prospects. 

An Aug. 14-17 NBC News poll already showed Biden losing support, most notably among independents, a crucial swing group that tends to reflect the public mood.

The administration’s handling of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan obviously put Democrats on the defensive, and the fallout from a misdirected drone strike in Kabul didn’t make things any better for the president and his secretary of Defense, especially given the government’s initial insistence that the strike had saved American lives.

Biden looked stubborn on Afghanistan — not as bad as Trump often looked during his term, but not the empathetic, smart, measured foreign policy veteran his supporters once applauded. Maybe there was no way to stop the return of the Taliban, but events have raised new questions about the U.S. military’s “over the horizon” capabilities and strategy. 

But the administration’s list of headaches continues to grow, now including confusion over COVID-19 vaccine boosters, trouble at the U.S.-Mexico border and Biden’s inept rollout of a new U.S.-U.K. agreement to sell submarines to Australia.

It’s about Biden, not Trump

Democrats’ fundamental problem is that over the past few weeks, most of the political focus has been on Biden, not Trump.

Yes, the former president has injected himself into primaries and political spats (including reportedly looking to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as party leader in the chamber).

But while journalists and political junkies follow these sorts of news stories, most Americans have been focused on the coronavirus, the economy and jobs, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

For the moment, the nation’s focus is on Biden and his performance in the nation’s top job — not on Trump. But that is likely to change as the midterms approach.

In California, Democrats successfully made Newsom’s recall at least partially about Trump and the Trumpification of the Republican Party. They will no doubt need to do that again in the 2022 midterms to motivate their voters, though that strategy will be much more difficult to pursue given that they won’t be fighting in states and districts that strongly favor Democrats.