The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The climate bill offers a boost to Biden. Can it change the equation?

Democrats believe this summer’s events, including the Supreme Court decision on abortion, are energizing their voters. But core issues like inflation and Biden’s approval ratings continue to push against Democratic candidates.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks about his deal with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) at a news conference Thursday on Capitol Hill. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The surprise announcement of a deal on a climate, prescription drugs and tax bill, which could give President Biden a much-needed legislative victory, is the latest in a series of summer developments that have put a question mark next to assumptions about the outcome of November midterm elections. Are Democrats onto something or are they fooling themselves?

At the start of the year, the basic outline for the November elections was clear. Republicans were on a path to win and maybe win big, most notably taking back control of the House. Everything tilted against the Democrats: Inflation, Biden’s anemic approval ratings, and history (the president’s party, with rare exceptions, loses seats in the first midterm of a new presidency).

But events — expected and unexpected — have since intervened, particularly the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and several more mass shootings, especially the killing of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex., which led to passage of the first gun safety bill in a decade. Add to that the possibility of enactment of a package that everyone had said was on life support a few weeks ago after Sen. Joe Manchin III seemed to walk away from the negotiating table, citing concerns about inflation.

Suddenly this week the West Virginia Democrat, who has been at the center of what rises or falls legislatively, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) came together to agree on a package that, while smaller than Biden’s original Build Back Better bill, was far bigger than anyone thought possible earlier this month.

Schumer and Manchin produced the biggest climate bill in history, which also includes provisions designed to lower the cost of prescription drugs, extend subsidies for the Affordable Care Act, establish a corporate minimum tax and close a loophole that some wealthy taxpayers use to lower their tax rates. The bill calls for $433 billion in new spending, including $385 billion to combat climate change. It would raise an estimated $739 billion in new revenue over the next decade.

Their Democratic colleagues may have been stunned, but Republicans were outraged after having helped pass a bipartisan semiconductor bill.

Here is what is in the Schumer-Manchin package

Passage of the climate bill would give Biden and Democratic candidates something tangible to talk about this fall, and the bill’s title — the Inflation Reduction Act — shows just how much Democrats need an antidote to the high cost of gasoline, food and many other products. Lawrence Summers, the former treasury secretary whose warnings in 2021 that the Biden spending initiatives risked triggering inflation were largely dismissed by the White House, has weighed in on the Schumer-Manchin package. He says it likely will help lower the rate of inflation (though he still worries about a possible recession).

The path to passage of the Schumer-Manchin bill is potentially tortuous, given the fact that there are not expected to be any Republican votes. The sometimes enigmatic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has yet to be heard from, and until she’s satisfied, the Democrats can’t get the bill out of the Senate. More twists could come in the House. Another emerging wave of the coronavirus adds another wrinkle to the timeline.

If the bill does reach Biden’s desk, then the issue is whether the new measure will break through with the public enough to help Democratic candidates in November. Neither the $2 trillion stimulus package nor the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which were passed last year, have had enough staying power to boost perceptions of Biden among the electorate. The president’s approval rating is still net negative despite those achievements. What’s to say this bill, other than that it is happening closer to November, will be different?

Still, when added to the high court’s abortion decision and public revulsion over mass shootings, the events of the summer are seen as having the potential to energize the Democratic base and improve Biden’s standing among those in his own party. If so, that could limit Democratic losses in the House (though Republicans are still favored to win control) and brighten the party’s hopes of maintaining its tenuous hold on the Senate. But there are still a lot of ifs in those presumptions.

The strategists working campaigns this year are looking closely at how people say they would vote in congressional races, a question known in the polling world as the generic ballot test. In recent weeks, Democrats have been narrowly ahead and in a stronger position than they were earlier in the year. But Republicans and Democrats interpret those numbers differently.

Republican pollster Ed Goeas and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake have teamed up for three decades on a series called the Battleground Poll, now housed at Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. The latest in this series was released Thursday and it showed Democrats leading on this congressional ballot test by 48 percent to 46 percent. Some other recent polls have shown Democrats with a bigger advantage, while a few show Republicans ahead. The RealClearPolitics average on Friday gave the GOP an advantage of about one percentage point.

In a call with reporters on Thursday, the two pollsters offered differing interpretations of their current numbers. Goeas began by noting that the generic ballot question has been historically skewed toward the Democrats, which is to say Republicans have done well even when the generic ballot question showed a Democratic advantage.

“If the generic ballot is within five points, usually that means we [Republicans] pick up some seats,” he said. “But I think the big question for Republicans is not whether we win control of Congress — I think we’re moving in that direction from everything I’m seeing — but whether we win it by five seats or do we win it by 25 seats?” That’s where motivation and enthusiasm come into play.

Lake countered by saying that political conditions today are different than they were, say, in 2010, and that can affect how people will vote. Traditional assumptions about politics may hold less weight at a time when the Republican Party embraces former president Donald Trump’s denials of the 2020 election results, and the midterms could bring more believers in Trump’s lies to power. The combination of the overturning of Roe, the issue of assault weapons and the hearings by the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, have helped balance the levels of intensity and motivation among voters in the two parties. “I think we have a good chance to avoid the kind of sweeping losses that both parties have faced in the first off-year election,” Lake said.

Goeas agreed that Republican and Democratic voters are currently closer to equal in their intensity. The question he asked was whether that’s transitory or something that will carry through to November. Do the issues of summer remain potent when the votes are cast, or do people fall back to the issues that have been uppermost in the voters’ minds all year — inflation and crime and now the threat of a recession along with that?

That is the biggest question as the primary season winds to a close and more voters begin paying attention to their choices for November. Right now, Democrats see reasons to think that their losses in the House can be held to a point where Republicans would have a narrow majority next January and that, because of the flaws of some of the GOP’s candidates for the Senate, maintaining control there is possible.

But fundamentals are what fundamentals are. Biden is unpopular, the cost of living looms large, a possible recession is on the horizon unless the Federal Reserve calibrates things skillfully, and most people think the country is off track. Democrats may be modestly optimistic today, but come September and October they will be measuring the drag that Biden’s standing puts on all their candidates and whether what looks helpful now has had the staying power to affect those fundamentals.