The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives on the march: GOP gains ground despite Democratic control

The conservative Supreme Court’s landmark victories this week on abortion and guns capped a year-long string of victories on the right

An abortion rights demonstrator holds a sign in front of Los Angeles City Hall on June 25, the day after the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. (Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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President Biden quoted liberal icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he first addressed Congress last year, laying out a policy plan with New Deal-sized ambition: curb climate change, reduce college and drug costs, raise corporate taxes, subsidize child care and continue tax rebates for parents, among other initiatives.

Fourteen months later — despite unified Democratic control of the House, Senate and White House — none of that has passed into law. At the same time, the conservative rebellion birthed in response to Roosevelt’s legacy notched major public policy victories in the courts and in states across the country.

The conservative Supreme Court’s landmark victories this week on abortion and guns capped a year-long string of victories on the right, especially in 23 states, including giants like Texas and Florida, where conservatives control all branches of elected government. Republicans have expanded school choice, reshaped school curriculums, curbed voting access, lowered taxes and launched a new wave of culture wars against gay, lesbian and transgender Americans.

With the court overturning Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to an abortion on Friday and curtailing restrictions on gun ownership on Thursday, conservative activists have had reasons to celebrate amid growing hopes for retaking the House and Senate this fall.

Hundreds gathered outside the Supreme Court Friday as the Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v Wade was announced. (Video: Jorge Ribas, Hadley Green, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

“You don’t plant and reap at the same time. And this has been a long process. The fruit of yesterday has been a long time coming,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian conservative group, said Saturday. “There were times that I didn’t even think we would get to this point.”

Liberals, meanwhile, have grown increasingly concerned that they will lose their chance to fully capitalize on control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — a position of unified power that Democrats last held after the 1992 and 2008 elections. Leaders of both parties expect a Republican takeover of the House in the midterm elections.

For the conservative movement, the liberal frustration is its own victory.

“I don’t see what permanent structures that the Democrats created in their first two years. Obamacare was a permanent structure,” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said of Biden’s presidency. “They missed, forgot, didn’t focus on the fact that the New Deal was passed when they were almost an 80 percent majority in the two houses. In 1964, after Goldwater loses, about 70 percent of House and Senate were Democrats and you passed the Great Society.”

At the root of the Democratic struggles is the tenuous nature of Biden’s victory in the 2020 election cycle. Although he beat President Donald Trump, Republicans nonetheless picked up a net gain of 14 seats in the House and flipped the New Hampshire state legislature. Republicans now control both the House and Senate in 30 states, compared with 17 states in Democratic control, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Since Biden’s inauguration, the 50 senators who caucus with Democrats have struggled to unite around his agenda.

“With Biden, the slimmest majority in the House only exceeded by the slimmer majority in the Senate is a difficult playing field,” Jim Kessler, a Democratic strategist at Third Way, said about the disconnect between conservative success and liberal frustration. “Republicans have had a 50-year plan to win the long game and Democrats have mostly worked to win the next cycle.”

The lack of progress by Democrats has resulted in pleas for Senate action over the next several months, before the midterms give Republicans a chance to shape Biden’s agenda. But a specific agenda, as negotiations continue with holdout senators like Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), remains elusive.

“We can’t just say, ‘Woe is me. This is how world events are going to happen,’ ” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We can be bolder. We can have greater energy. We can do things that are outside the box. This is not the time for institutionalism or incrementalism.”

Biden’s political allies dispute the notion that the first months of his presidency have been a policy disappointment, pointing to similar frustrations that Republicans dealt with in the first years of the Trump presidency, when Republicans had full control but failed to repeal Obamacare.

They focus on the ambitions he has achieved, including a variety of executive actions, along with new bipartisan laws on infrastructure and gun safety and the passage early last year of the American Rescue Plan, which flooded states with funding at the end of the pandemic and provided stimulus payments to most Americans.

“As conservatives celebrate partisan decisions out of the Supreme Court that are completely out-of-step with the wants and needs of the American people, it’s clear to me that the Biden-Harris administration will continue to make good on the president’s goals,” Danielle Melfi, executive director at Building Back Together, a nonprofit group supporting Biden’s agenda, said in a statement.

She described the president as “laser-focused on building back better from the pandemic, including by initiating a historic economic recovery, making generational investments in communities nationwide, and restoring America’s global standing.”

But that focus has done little to protect liberal activists battling conservative efforts in the states. Strategists at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest advocacy group for gay, lesbian and transgender Americans, have been battling a wave of legislation to change curriculum, prevent the classroom discussion of sexual orientation and prohibit transgender women from competing in sports at the state level.

“We have seen these state legislatures that are jamming through these anti-LGBT bills, particularly anti-trans bills,” said Sarah Warbelow, the Human Rights Campaign’s legal director. “The flavor of the day has changed from year to year as conservatives try to figure out how to penalize the LGBT community.”

At the same time, despite administrative action by Biden that has enshrined new protections for the LGBT community, efforts to pass the Equality Act, a top priority of the Biden administration that would enshrine new federal protections for gays and lesbians, have failed to make progress in the U.S. Senate.

Teachers unions, a key part of the Democratic coalition, also have been battling a wave of conservative legislation aimed at curtailing what educators can teach in class, and the curriculum they can use. They include new state laws that prevent teachers from discussing sexual orientation in younger grades and curtail how race is taught.

“They are diverting public schools from their core mission of educating kids and they are just trying to create more anger,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. She said she expects the pendulum to swing back in the coming months, as parents work to connect with teachers and more moderate leaders win school committee elections.

“The one issue that we also have to be really clear about is frankly any conversation on issues of sex in schools; it has to be age appropriate,” she said. “Sensitive topics like race and gender always have to be taught in an age-appropriate way.”

Even if Democrats overperform expectations this fall, there is little expectation that they can do much to expand their elected power. Arizona and Georgia are the only states with Republican control of the legislature where the GOP is at serious risk of losing gubernatorial elections in November. At the same time, Republicans have a path to winning control of governor’s mansions and legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

That will set up another presidential election in 2024, where the country is once again narrowly divided. Even if Democrats win, they are likely to find themselves in a similar predicament, with a conservative majority on the Supreme Court and Republican domination in many states. Democrats have been left looking for new strategies to change the country’s political dynamics, including possible structural changes to the Supreme Court, an approach that Biden has so far ruled out.

“My main critique federally with Biden was that he was too slow to use that which he actually did control in the executive branch to tell a narrative of what was going wrong in the country and what he could do to fix it,” said Jeff Hauser, a liberal activist with the Revolving Door Project, a group that monitors federal appointees. “By constantly acting like we are one step away from a return to normalcy in American politics, Biden keeps downplaying the crisis in this country.”