As Biden announces plans for ambitious spending — to be paid for with higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations — the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar suggests that Biden risks generating blowback come the midterm election: “If Republicans can’t claw back some of the lost suburban vote as a result of Biden’s big-government agenda, they’re truly in for a long drought out of power. But if politics reverts to a new normal in the Biden era, the old tax-and-spend criticism that dogged Democrats for decades could reemerge with a vengeance for next year’s midterms.”
Kraushaar encountered some pushback on this suggestion. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, for example, points out the popularity of Biden’s economic policy proposals. CNN’s Harry Enten notes that Biden’s presidency has been what voters expected — which implies that significant blowback is less likely. Reuters released a poll showing that a solid majority support Biden’s economic policies, including the tax increases.
On social media, Kraushaar countered by noting that a healthy U.S. economy did not help the GOP during the 2018 midterm election, so why should 2022 be any different?
There are three ways to respond to Kraushaar’s argument. The first is to point out the obvious: The world has changed since 2018, and that is reflected in the polling data. Late last year, Gallup recorded the highest support it had polled for the government to do more to solve the nation’s problems. As my Post colleague Aaron Blake noted last week, former president Donald Trump paradoxically paved the way for Biden’s big spending by eviscerating once and for all the GOP’s vestigial claim to fiscal conservatism: “That might be one of the most demonstrable and significant shifts in American politics in the Trump era.” Political science research suggests that the coronavirus pandemic also acted as an inflection point for recognizing the utility of the state.
The second response is to point out that the GOP did poorly in the 2018 midterms in no small part because Trump mobilized his opposition at least as much as his own base. The question is whether Biden will do the same. As CNN’s Daniel Dale has observed, Biden has been far more disciplined than Trump in his public statements. He largely sticks to his prepared remarks. Biden’s Twitter feed has been as anodyne as Trump’s was impulsive.
Biden could still be polarizing, but that would require him to say polarizing stuff and he keeps not doing that. Instead, as Ross Douthat noted over the weekend, Biden “can talk like an old-line Democrat and, once elected, shovels money out the door.”
Republicans are left with BS talking points that are not getting traction and absurd litmus tests for GOP candidates about whether the 2020 election results were stolen. None of this will win back suburban voters. It’s not clear whether more substantive polarizing issues such as immigration will do the trick.
The final response, however, is to point out that Kraushaar has to be only a little bit right for both chambers of Congress to flip to the GOP in 2022. The Senate is split 50-50 and the Democrats control the House by fewer than a dozen seats. Even if tax-and-spend is no longer the political poison it was last century, that attack message plus a polarized electorate might be just enough to flip the requisite number of seats.
Just as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition broke apart with the Reagan Revolution, the conservative counter-coalition is badly frayed. Biden’s economic policies are unlikely to alienate voters, particularly if he cuts a deal with Congress to obtain GOP support for infrastructure. His problem is that the logic of midterm elections remains potent and will work against the Democrats in 18 months.
Biden is unlikely to go too far — but that does not mean his party will win in 2022.