Comment: A crushing defeat in November could help Democrats

Even amid positive news and real achievements, the party needs to be pulled back to a moderate path.

By Clive Crook / Bloomberg Opinion

If you dread the possibility of a second Trump administration, you should ask whether the Democrats’ improving prospects in the midterm elections are an entirely good thing. The party is much less popular than it should be, given the quality of its opponents; and it needs to ask why. A brutal beating this November would force the conversation. Anything that can be spun as a qualified success will allow the question to be shelved.

Three main factors are currently helping the party: the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the flow of new information about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and renewed hope of a productive budget-reconciliation package. But Democrats seem determined to misread these developments; bending them to fit the ill-conceived theory of unbridled ambition and transformative change that’s guided them since the outset of Joe Biden’s presidency.

The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade is unpopular, with 57 percent of Americans disapproving. Even better for electoral purposes, moderate Democrats oppose the ruling by a very wide margin (74 percent to 25 percent) whereas moderate Republicans are about evenly split (50 percent support it, 49 percent oppose).

To underline the point, in a referendum this week, voters in Kansas rejected an amendment to the state’s constitution that would have erased the right to abortion affirmed by its highest court in 2019. In effect, the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs was on the ballot; voters in a conservative state rejected it by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent.

Yet this doesn’t show that most voters favor completely unrestricted access to abortion. It shows they don’t trust Republican legislatures to stop at the kind of limited regulation most voters actually support. A plurality of Americans favor a Roe-like guarantee of access to abortion up to 15 weeks’ gestation; the middle way that Chief Justice John Roberts proposed in Dobbs. But on this issue, as on every other, committed Democrats and Republicans are reflexively opposed to compromise. Democrats could have owned the moderate middle. Instead, they greeted the backlash against Dobbs as vindicating their recently adopted fundamentalism.

The House of Representatives’ Jan. 6 committee has supplied a steady flow of information showing former President Donald Trump’s unfitness for office. Nobody should have needed the committee’s work to realize this. But the torrent of defamatory details surely makes that conclusion harder to evade. Trump’s strongest supporters can’t admit it, but even many of them must be embarrassed. It’s another boost for Democrats.

Here was an opportunity to open the minds of wavering Republicans to Trump’s pathologies. Some of that happened, no doubt; but the impact on the median voter was likely diminished by the committee’s theatrically partisan spin. The tendency to refer to the events of that day not as a riot, for example, but as an insurrection — that is, a conspiracy to violently overthrow the government — implies that anybody who fails to oppose Trump now is a putative traitor. Such overkill repels the moderate voter.

Lately, the idea that Democrats in Congress are incapable of getting anything done has abruptly given way to a new and more encouraging narrative. The Senate’s radically scaled-down Build Back Better plan, now called the Inflation Reduction Act, has been widely — and rightly — applauded for its measures to promote clean energy, curb prescription drug costs and trim the 10-year budget deficit.

The deal still isn’t done and, as it stands, some of the details are questionable. It’s a shame, as well, that the Inflation Reduction Act won’t reduce inflation, though by now voters are surely inured to the absurd names that Congress attaches to its legislation. The measure is a good one on balance, representing the kind of sensible compromise that centrists like to advocate, combining smart public investments and incentives with fiscal discipline.

Yet it is important to remember that this agreement happened despite Biden’s protracted efforts to advance a far more ambitious agenda. His defenders will say that if he’d pushed from the outset for compromise, he’d have achieved much less. That’s doubtful, in my view. Even if it’s true, something like the budget agreement is best described not as a “historic achievement” — assuming that something is actually achieved — but simply as government working as it should.

If Trump does run in 2024, the alternative that the middle of the electorate will want is not wholesale reinvention of a fundamentally broken nation but the prospect of calm, deliberate, incremental improvement by minimally competent elected officials. You might call it “normal politics,” except that in the U.S. it would be anything but normal. Republicans under Trump’s sway cannot hope to make any such offer. Democrats — once they ask themselves why they’re failing to persuade half the country — could.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering economics.

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