The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion One week, three numbers tell the tale of Democratic political distress

A customer surveys the shelves in a New York store on March 28. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
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As their prospects for the November midterm elections dim, Democrats might want to focus on one week, and three statistics, to help understand their predicament and, perhaps, to salvage their chances.

The week was the one that ended on Saturday, April 16, and these were the statistics: Ten, as in 10 people shot at random April 12 on New York’s subway; 8.5, as in 8.5 percent, the annualized rate of inflation for March, the highest since 1981, announced that same day; and 210,000, as in 210,000 migrants arrested at the southern border in March, according to a government court filing April 15, a 20-year high.

Each represented a new peak, symbolic or actual, to a rising voter concern: violent crime, spiraling prices and uncontrolled migration. Each connoted governmental failure to meet a core responsibility: public safety; a stable currency; border integrity.

Those failures are occurring while President Biden and his party control both the executive and legislative branches in Washington.

And, according to the rules of democratic politics, the people in power when government fails at its essential tasks lose popularity. It’s pretty much that simple.

Biden’s approval rating is in the low 40 percentage point range, Democrats trail in the generic ballot for Congress — and election analyst David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report recently noted on a National Journal podcast that the party is en route to “wipeout territory” and likely to lose both the House and Senate.

The rules of politics are not fair, of course. Neither the Biden administration nor the Democratic-controlled Congress “caused" crime or inflation or mass migration, much less desired them. The president and lawmakers share responsibility for these problems with others they do not control, including state and local police, the Federal Reserve and governments abroad.

Even if crime, inflation and immigration were well managed, the 40-odd percent of the polarized electorate that still approves of former president Donald Trump probably would not give Biden credit anyway.

What’s hurting Biden among the crucial margin of persuadable voters, though, is that Republican attacks have a kernel of truth. Policing is a state and local responsibility, primarily; yet his party is associated with controversial criminal justice reforms such as eliminating cash bail — which Biden specifically endorsed in 2020 — and non-prosecution of misdemeanors.

Meanwhile, the federal measures Biden has advocated, such as cracking down on hard-to-trace ghost guns, imply that his administration does have responsibility for crime control, but can’t make much difference in the short run.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, adopted in March 2021, probably fueled inflation by pumping up demand excessively and, according to former Obama administration Treasury official Steven Rattner, “will go down in history as an extraordinary policy mistake.”

The administration made matters worse by playing down inflation as “temporary" or “transitory,” just as Biden dismissed the migration surge last year as “seasonal.” Far more likely, migrants are moving north as a rational response to the more permissive policies the Biden administration substituted for Trump’s build-the-wall approach.

By contrast, Democrats expended precious time, energy and resources earlier this year on a doomed — and, by now, forgotten — effort to modify the filibuster and pass a voting rights law.

That episode was one of several in which the priorities of Democratic progressives, however valid, diverted from core economic and security concerns, which any government must first address to secure a political basis upon which to build systemic reforms.

Negative views of Biden appear to be hardening so much that he is not getting credit for having managed well the U.S. response to war in Ukraine, which is part of a core presidential responsibility: foreign policy.

Worried Democrats are giving each other conflicting political advice: Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick urges the party to run on what it did achieve, such as job growth and a bipartisan infrastructure package; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, from the same blue state says, no, stage a campaign-season legislative assault on corporate greed and cancel student debt.

Probably the smartest advice comes from a growing number of Democratic senators and senatorial candidates who are facing the voters in November: Undo Biden’s ill-considered decision to end Title 42 summary removals of border-crossers. His own administration predicts it will generate 18,000 migrant border crossings per day.

Yes, politics is unfair: If present trends continue, the winner in November would be the Republicans, a party under the influence of a dishonest demagogue, with no positive agenda.

And yet Democrats, it must be said, have not governed as if they really internalized their own warnings about the threat to democracy from a Trump-led GOP.

Those high stakes called for pragmatic, selective reform, careful stewardship of core government functions — aimed at patient expansion of the narrow 2020 Democratic majority.

History might judge Democrats harshly if the past two years of their unified rule give way to a GOP restoration. There is still time to prevent that, but not much.