The Democrats’ Greatest Delusion

The party keeps behaving like it can win the next election by pulling off the right set of political maneuvers.

A black and white photograph of Nancy Pelosi walking toward the camera. She is wearing a pant suit and floral mask.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Democrats in Congress are divided on a slew of important issues right now, leaving President Joe Biden’s signature $3.5 trillion spending plan in jeopardy. What unites them is the illusion that the way they handle the plan will make or break the party’s fortunes in next year’s midterms.

If only things worked that way. The election is almost certainly a lost cause for Democrats, and, if it’s not, it’s likely out of their control either way. Democrats have power now; the question is whether they will use it while they have it.

The Biden plan has always had a treacherous path to tread, and this week it seems closer than ever to plunging into the abyss. Party leaders in both chambers have insisted on pushing forward, but they face competing pressure from their left and right flanks. House progressives want to vote on both a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal and the $3.5 trillion plan at the same time, but Senator Joe Manchin wants a “strategic pause” on the larger package, perhaps into 2022. Senator Kyrsten Sinema has reportedly told Biden that if the House doesn’t vote on the bipartisan deal or the vote fails, she won’t support the bigger bill. But House moderates are wary of voting on anything without knowing what the Senate will pass.

“When we vote on tough things that never become law, we have to go home and defend that vote without the support of the White House,” a source identified only as a moderate Democrat told Politico last week. “It puts the House majority at risk.”

From the other wing of the party, Senator Bernie Sanders told NPR last week that passing the two bills quickly was the best way to protect the slim majority.

“The best shot that Democrats have is to understand that good policy is good politics, that when you stand up for working families, when you stand up to protect our kids and future generations from the devastation of climate—that not only is that the right thing to do. The American people will reward you,” he said.

But the Democrats’ narrow House majority—just eight seats—is likely already doomed. Since World War II, only two midterms have seen the president’s party gain seats in the House. Democrats won seats in 1998, amid Republicans’ politically disastrous decision to impeach Bill Clinton, and Republicans won seats in 2002, in the strange post-9/11 moment. Of the other postwar midterms, the president’s party lost just eight or fewer seats three times.

As though this were not daunting enough, Democrats also have to contend with post-census redistricting. States haven’t yet drawn their districts, but some estimates suggest that Democrats could lose a dozen seats through redistricting alone. Meanwhile, even though California Governor Gavin Newsom soundly defeated a recall this month, data from that election point to the Democratic vote share slipping into territory that would signal a midterm loss.

If the pattern of the president’s party losing in the midterms is consistent, the pattern of the president’s party convincing themselves they won’t lose is nearly as consistent. Each cycle, partisans contrive arguments to explain why this time will be different. “Democrats are on the right path to make their own history and keep the House,” the journalist Bill Scher wrote in May. “Some people insist that we’re preordained to repeat that fate in the 2022 midterms,” the Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson wrote around the same time. “But a lot has changed in the past 12 years.” In June, the journalist Louis Jacobson suggested that Donald Trump’s continued dominance of the Republican Party could lift Democrats in the midterms: “This could make the 2022 elections more of a ‘choice’ election, which would be a more favorable playing field for the Democrats.”

It’s true: Democrats could eke this one out. There might be a 9/11-style catastrophe that rallies support for Biden. Republicans might badly overreach, either via Trumpian interference or a miscalculation like the Clinton impeachment. The economy might boom, boosting Democrats, though the ravages of the Delta variant of the coronavirus have seriously slowed down the current recovery.

What Democrats do about the spending bills—size, speed, or disposition—doesn’t really have anything to do with these rosy scenarios, because voters don’t really pay especially close attention to policy or make their voting decisions based on it. The political scientist Jonathan Bernstein notes that in 1994, Democrats failed to pass their huge health-care reform bill, and got destroyed in the midterms. In 2010, Democrats came together and passed a different, huge health-care reform bill—and got destroyed in the midterms.

This kind of political fatalism is bleak, and it runs counter to the kind of can-do spirit it takes to run for Congress. Political scientists are rarely a hit at any party, especially a political party. Members want to believe they’re representing voters, and if they provide for those voters, they’ll be rewarded with another term. That’s why politicians such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who knows the dispiriting history well, still publicly insist that Democrats will hold the House. In reality, members’ fates will be mostly decided by how strongly Democratic their district is.

For the endangered moderates, that’s painful. It’s one thing to say Democrats will probably lose their majority, and another to tell a swing-district House member she’s going to lose her job, no matter what she does now. She’s likely to take any step she can to appeal to moderate and swing voters, even if it means undermining the party’s policy aims, rather than admit that her fate is out of her hands.

But fatalism can be freeing too. If the timing of a bill passing, or even failing, doesn’t matter to your chances of reelection, the stakes of these intramural skirmishes over process are much smaller. Members can stress less about mechanics and more about results. After all, the point of a majority is to enact legislation—not simply to maintain that majority.