Why Current Democratic Strategy Probably Won’t Work

The Biden Boom Is Not Enough

The Democrats have a plan for 2022. It’s called the Biden boom. Into that boom will be folded Democratic policy successes like the vaccine rollout, the American Rescue Plan and, possibly, a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a budget reconciliation bill providing substantial new investments in education, child care and clean energy.

This is not a crazy strategy. The Biden boom does seem to be happening. Paul Krugman notes:

[W]e [now] have enough data in hand to declare that the economy is booming…[L]et’s try to put this boom in context, by noting that the economy is running hotter than it did during the “Morning in America” boom that gave Ronald Reagan a landslide victory in the 1984 presidential election.

We’ve gained three million jobs since Biden took office, or 600,000 jobs a month. This compares with gains of 340,000 a month in the year leading up to the 1984 election.

To be fair, Reagan-era job gains took place from a lower base, so it may be more appropriate to compare growth rates. But this still gives Biden the advantage: 5 percent at an annual rate, versus 4.4 percent in 1983-84.

A variety of other indicators tell the same story. The Biden boom is real and likely to continue for a while. That should be good for the Democrats since a strong economy typically benefits the incumbent party, as well as improving the President’s approval rating, another plus for the incumbent party.

Incumbent parties also benefit when they can plausibly claim they solved problems (like containing the pandemic) and got popular legislation enacted (like the American Rescue Plan). The jury is still out on the bipartisan infrastructure bill (and even more on the big budget reconciliation bill). But these could also be part of the Biden boom strategy. Infrastructure in particular tends to be quite popular with voters; vulnerable Democratic House incumbents are practically salivating about the way the bill—if it passes—could directly help people and communities in their districts and therefore help them retain office.

And yet…we see no evidence of any surge in the Democrats’ direction. Biden’s approval rating has been steady, but only middling good. The generic Congressional ballot has been favorable for the Democrats, but not by the kind of margin that would inspire confidence in their prospects. So we’re not as yet seeing the kind of voter movement in reaction to the Biden boom that could suggest Democrats can both overcome the traditional penalty incumbent parties typically pay in their first midterm election plus the additional thumb on the scales that Republicans will have from redistricting.

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Alexander Burns at the New York Times summarized the situation aptly:

In another age, the events of this season would have been nearly certain to produce a major shift in American politics — or at least a meaningful, discernible one.

Over a period of weeks, the coronavirus death rate plunged and the country considerably eased public health restrictions. President Biden announced a bipartisan deal late last month to spend hundreds of billions of dollars rebuilding the country’s worn infrastructure — the most significant aisle-crossing legislative agreement in a generation, if it holds together. The Congressional Budget Office estimated on Thursday that the economy was on track to regain all of the jobs it lost during the pandemic by the middle of 2022.

And in a blow to Mr. Biden’s fractious opposition, Donald J. Trump — the dominant figure in Republican politics — faced an embarrassing legal setback just as he was resuming a schedule of campaign-style events. The Manhattan district attorney’s office charged his company, the Trump Organization, and its chief financial officer with “sweeping and audacious” financial crimes.

Not long ago, such a sequence of developments might have tested the partisan boundaries of American politics, startling voters into reconsidering their assumptions about the current president, his predecessor, the two major parties and what government can do for the American people.

This suggests Democrats’ successes in the economic and health areas, as recounted above, will likely not be enough to tilt the playing field decisively in their favor. To do that, they will need to overcome suspicions of the party that have to do with other, more culturally-inflected concerns. This, in turn, will require the party to take some stances that the ascendant left in the party will likely oppose for ideological reasons.  

Nowhere is this clearer than on the issue of crime. Eric Adams’ victory in the New York City Democratic mayoral primary, where he built a multiracial working class coalition by pledging a militant commitment to public safety and ostentatiously rejecting the idea of defunding the police, is a sign that voters, even in very blue areas, are very worried indeed about crime and want a tough approach.

How worried? According to recent data from the Democratic-oriented Navigator Research, more Americans overall, including among independents and Hispanics, now believe violent crime is a “major crisis” than believe that about the coronavirus pandemic or any other area of concern. Moreover, majorities of even Democrats now believe violent crime is a major crisis and concerns are sky-high among black voters (70 percent say it’s a major crisis).

This is, as Biden might put it, a big f____ deal. Democrats in competitive races are no doubt looking at data like this and at the Adams race and taking careful notes. They know they can’t afford to just run on the Biden boom—that is necessary but not sufficient. And Biden himself has started to address the issue though it is not yet clear the extent to which he will be able to consolidate the rest of his party around a tough on crime approach. The ideological resistance is likely to be fierce. But a party that aspires to build a transformational coalition will have to overcome that resistance and base itself firmly on voters’ needs and values, not ideology.