September 2021 was a tough slog for the Democrats whose trifecta control of Congress and the White House has made it essential, but hardly easy, to reach internal agreement on the Biden priorities of an infrastructure and budget reconciliation bill. As of Thursday night, it is entirely possible the Build Back Better reconciliation bill will get a severe haircut thanks to the demands of centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and that the package will be significantly less progressive than originally envisioned. Totally aside from this set of problems, Democrats are presently stymied by the Senate filibuster on other key priorities ranging from voting rights to abortion rights to a path to citizenship for immigrants.
But these frustrated and sometimes battling donkeys should stop kicking and braying long enough to count their blessings. They came very close to not having a trifecta at all. And the narrow margins Democrats have to work with now could have been less than zero.
Most obviously, Donald Trump’s efforts to illegally reverse the presidential election outcome based on the Big Lie that he won should not make us forget that a shift of just over 77,000 votes in four states (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin) would have given him a Electoral College majority, despite Biden’s large win (which would have nearly reached seven million votes even with the above-stipulated shift) in the national popular vote. You have to reach a little deeper to come up with a hypothetical Republican conquest of the House, since the GOP won eight of the closest ten House races and still fell five seats short.
It’s pretty easy, by contrast, to see how Democrats might have fallen short in the Senate long after November 3: Had the two Republican incumbents won those January 5 U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, as most observers initially thought they would do, then Mitch McConnell would still be Majority Leader rather than the ranking obstructionist. Indeed, the most common explanation of those pivotal Democratic victories over David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler is that Trump made the runoffs all about his grievances while continuing to undermine Republican voter confidence in the electoral system.
Democrats were fortunate as well that new senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were solid progressive Democrats, not the sort of Blue Doggy centrists wary of the national party that Georgia and other southern states once routinely sent to Washington.
In any event, life in America would obviously be very different if Trump were still in the White House. And had Republicans hung on to control of the Senate, there would be no Democratic-designed FY 2022 budget reconciliation bill for Manchin and Sinema to undermine. In all likelihood, Congress might have still enacted a significantly pared-down version of the American Rescue Plan, but would have probably called it a day. It’s doubtful McConnell would have felt any real pressure to let a significant number of Senate Republicans back a bipartisan infrastructure bill that Donald Trump loudly opposed. And all the developments that have depressed Joe Biden’s job approval ratings in recent months would still have likely happened anyway, with no countervailing public appreciation for what he may yet accomplish with his congressional allies.
The Democratic trifecta of the 116th Congress will leave a massive or modest legacy depending on what happens between now and November of 2022 — and obviously on what happens in the 2022 midterms. But the situation could be so much less promising and so much more depressing, and Democrats, especially disappointed progressives hoping for a new New Deal, should keep that in mind.