It is the normal state of affairs for a newly elected president to see his party rebuked decisively in the first midterm election. When the president is presiding over a bad economy — and, despite low unemployment, this very much is one — this tendency becomes something close to an iron law.
The 2022 midterm elections appear to have broken that law. Democratic candidates for House, Senate, and governor have all performed far better than almost anybody expected. By the standards of how midterms elections go, it should be considered a vote of confidence in the party.
To be sure, nothing about Joe Biden’s approval ratings suggests the public has genuine confidence in his presidency. It is more realistically a vote of no confidence in the Republican opposition.
The reasons for this lack of confidence range from the Dobbs decision to Donald Trump’s bellicose presidency-in-exile to the flock of imitators inspired by his example to run for high office despite lacking even remotely appropriate credentials, ethics, or basic knowledge of public policy. Trump’s army of kooks bears considerable responsibility for the party’s underperformance.
And yet the impulse of Republican elites to blame the whole debacle on the former president, while understandable, merely concentrates blame on a convenient scapegoat. It is not only Trump’s handpicked candidates who lost their races. Indeed, the defeat is consistent with the theory that, in the Trump era, Republicans tend to do badly when Trump is off the ballot. The party did shockingly well in 2016, and Republicans gained seats in 2020, despite all expectations. They lost the Georgia Senate runoff, again, with Trump off the ballot.
Most of these results came as a surprise to observers, but one way to make sense of all of them is to assume that Trump’s looming presence in the national debate repels swing voters whether or not he is personally running and that a slice of arch-populist right-wing voters is inspired to cast a ballot only if he is on the ticket.
Republicans have been trying to create an environment that would allow them to enjoy all the benefits of Trump’s hallucinatory grievance narrative without any of the costs. But the midterms may instead suggest they must choose between mobilizing every last one of his cult followers and maintaining sane, or sane-ish, ancestral Republican voters.
The Republicans’ calculation all along has been that they could regain power by exploiting public dissatisfaction over rising prices without publicly defining any plan, however skeletal, to redress it. They understood that their domestic-policy agenda remains a political liability. This is why they hoped to force Biden to sign their chosen ideas into law by extorting him with the threat of a debt crisis. They may yet have that chance, depending on how the House races land.
What they will not be able to claim, even to themselves, is that the public has granted them a mandate or turned in some decisive way against the Democratic incumbents.
Biden has haltingly found his way to a relatively effective message that acknowledges the public’s desire for low crime and low gas prices, even if he has failed to deliver these things. The public’s dismay with his performance is by and large an expression of dissatisfaction and concern, not the raging hatred expressed by his opponents. Despite everything, there is still a robust constituency in this country for leaders who are not overtly crazy.