Democrats shouldn’t be shocked by a miserable midterm

Published Tue, Nov 8, 2022 · 11:00 PM

By all indications, Tuesday (Nov 8) will be a bad day for Democrats. Polls suggest they’re set to lose the House, perhaps the Senate, and likely a slew of competitive races they should’ve won. Such defeats aren’t unusual for a president’s party in midterm elections. But this one should induce some introspection.

Democrats can fairly wonder where they went wrong. With unified control of the government, they passed nearly US$2 trillion for Covid relief, US$1.2 trillion for infrastructure, US$280 billion for research and chips manufacturing, US$667 billion for a new veterans’ benefit, and more than US$350 billion for green energy, among other things. There was a gun-control reform, a postal-service overhaul and a huge relief effort for Ukraine. In a grand finale, President Joe Biden unilaterally forgave some US$400 billion in student-loan debt.

What more could people want?

Some restraint, for starters. In poll after poll, voters cited soaring prices as their top concern. Yet Democrats have spent two years demanding more and bigger spending packages. Although plenty of analysts warned that the US$1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was too big and poorly targeted, Democrats refused to seriously negotiate with Republicans on a slimmed-down version. By one estimate, that plan and similar stimulus added about 3 percentage points to inflation. Yet, the splurge went on.

A similar dynamic took hold with public safety. Across big cities this year, the homicide rate is up by nearly 40% relative to 2019. Almost three-quarters of Americans say they’re dissatisfied with policies to reduce crime. Democrats, though, have offered basically no answers on the topic. A last-minute effort to distance themselves from “defund the police” – a foolish slogan that in some places has had devastating real-life consequences – and support more cops on the beat didn’t persuade many voters. 

One pollster found that touting their own accomplishments was the “worst performing message” for Democrats. And no wonder: On two of voters’ biggest concerns, they were completely out of touch.


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Republicans, for their part, spent the past few months fanning the flames of the culture war and ignoring public policy altogether. That strategy had a certain logic in a heated campaign. But the party now has a responsibility to advance an actual agenda. More to the point: Both parties have a duty to negotiate in good faith on areas of mutual interest.

Start with inflation. Although stabilising prices is mostly up to the Federal Reserve, prudent policy could certainly make its job easier. Notably, both parties should agree that tariffs erected during Donald Trump’s administration are inflationary, ineffective and thoroughly self-defeating. One analysis found that just a two percentage-point reduction in tariffs could push down inflation by 1.3 percentage points. That should be a no-brainer.

Other steps to curb prices are more contentious. Democrats are unlikely to scrap union-friendly procurement provisions, for instance, even though doing so would slash the cost of government projects. But both sides could agree to repeal the Jones Act, a benighted protectionist measure that snarls shipping, raises consumer prices, inflates energy costs, erodes competitiveness, and is impeding the president’s clean-power agenda.

Similarly, despite sparring for months on crime, the parties aren’t that far apart on what they’d like to do about it. In September, the House passed a bipartisan package to fund more local police officers, following a similar proposal by the White House. Research shows that adding police officers leads to less crime, and that federal funding for local law enforcement can have pronounced benefits. Paired with some commonsense reforms to ensure police accountability and improve gun safety, an anti-crime bargain shouldn’t be implausible.

Should a pragmatic spirit prevail, there’s common ground in plenty of other areas too: on Biden’s plans for a cancer “moonshot,” on immigration reform, on energy independence and more. Once-and-maybe-future Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he’s open to such compromise.

Realistically, an outbreak of bipartisan serenity is unlikely. But when the next Congress convenes, both parties face a choice: spend the next two years on stunts and symbolism, or work together to solve real-life problems. The right decision should be obvious. BLOOMBERG



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