Comment: Biden’s, Democrats’ legislative success may not matter

Hope of avoiding a red wave this November hinges more on abortion and Trump than recent policy wins.

By David A. Hopkins / Bloomberg

A few months ago, the Democratic Party’s legislative agenda appeared stagnant and its political fortunes dire. Then Congress enacted several major new laws — most notably a budget reconciliation bill that combined climate change mitigation and health-care affordability measures — and President Biden announced an unprecedented partial forgiveness of federal student debt. Now both Biden and his party are enjoying such a surge in popularity that some pundits are openly questioning the long-assumed Republican landslide in November.

It’s tempting to draw a simple connection between Democrats’ recent burst of policymaking and their concurrent rise in the polls. But voters don’t necessarily think that way; and there’s no guarantee this bounce will endure until Election Day.

Voters often claim to be frustrated by a “do-nothing” Washington, so they should presumably be pleased when their leaders do something. And a Democratic-aligned super PAC recently unveiled a battleground-state ad campaign touting the party’s recent accomplishments, suggesting that some party strategists hope legislative credit-claiming will be a persuasive electoral message. Finally, there’s a strong inherent appeal in the belief that incumbents will be rewarded by a satisfied electorate for delivering on the commitments they made during their campaigns.

In other words: It’s natural to treat the enactment of new policy as, by definition, a governing success.

History shows otherwise. Some of the most historically productive sessions of Congress have been followed by significant electoral losses for the president’s party: In 2010, after enacting the Affordable Care Act, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, Democrats lost 63 House seats and seven Senate seats. Republicans lost 27 House seats in 1982 after the first round of Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and military buildup. Even after the popular creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, in the next year’s midterms the ruling Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate.

In some cases, such as the ACA, the legislation was controversial enough to provoke a national backlash. In others, Americans simply had other things on their minds by the time of the next election, such as the economic recession of 1982 and urban riots in 1966.

Even when voters applaud policy change, their memories often fade and attention quickly turns to other concerns. Polls showed that the bipartisan infrastructure bill enjoyed broad approval when Biden signed it last November. But one survey conducted this past June found that only about a quarter of respondents even recalled that the bill had become law.

So even if the recent rebound in the Democratic Party’s popularity reflects an appreciative response to its policymaking flurry — rather than the steady decline in gasoline prices since midsummer or the fading of covid-related disruptions — it’s an open question whether it will last.

Disaffection tends to be a much more energizing and durable sentiment in politics than gratitude. Ruling parties are vulnerable to significant seat losses in congressional midterm elections because members of the opposition are usually motivated to register their disapproval at the polls, while swing voters know they can trim the president’s power without handing full control of government to the other party.

To have a chance of avoiding this fate, Democrats may need to harness some anger on their own behalf. This strategy is normally doomed to failure in a midterm election; backlash politics rarely benefit the people in charge. But the Supreme Court’s June decision overturning Roe v. Wade is a rare case of federal policy on a major issue moving sharply in the opposite direction of the president’s party, and it already appears to be producing a rise in electoral engagement among Democratic voters.

The continued public prominence of Donald Trump and the success of Trump-aligned candidates in Republican primaries, especially for the Senate, also raises the possibility that the 2022 midterms will be less of a referendum on the sitting president than usual. Trump is no more popular than Biden is, and an election framed as a choice between the two might turn out to be more of a split decision than a Republican landslide.

Some Democrats might find cold comfort from the fact that the price of a brightening electoral forecast is the Dobbs ruling and the continued presence of Trumpism. The U.S. political system does provide incentives for leaders to achieve their substantive goals, but those incentives are seldom enforced by midterm electorates. Because it is the members of the party itself who work the hardest to pressure politicians to fulfill their promises, any payoff usually comes when it’s time for renomination.

Biden’s policies on health care, climate change and student debt may not help his party win seats this year. But don’t be surprised if he uses them to make the case to his fellow Democrats that he deserves the chance for a second term in 2024.

David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College and the author of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.”

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