By Ross Douthat
f the Democrats end up losing both the House and the Senate, an outcome that looks more likely than it did a month ago, there will be nothing particularly shocking about the result. The incumbent president’s party almost always suffers losses in the midterms, the Democrats entered 2022 with thin majorities and a not-that-favorable Senate map, and the Western world is dealing with a war-driven energy crunch that’s generally rough on incumbent parties, both liberal and conservative. (Just ask poor Liz Truss.)
But as an exculpating narrative for the Biden administration, this goes only so far. Some races will inevitably be settled on the margins, control of the Senate may be as well, and on the margins there’s always something a president could have done differently to yield a better political result.
President Biden’s case is no exception: The burdens of the midterms have been heavier for Democrats than they needed to be because of three notable failures, three specific courses that his White House set.
The first fateful course began, as Matthew Continetti noted recently in The Washington Free Beacon, in the initial days of the administration, when Biden made critical decisions on energy and immigration that his party’s activists demanded: for environmentalists, a moratorium on new oil-and-gas leases on public lands and, for immigration advocates, a partial rollback of key Trump administration border policies.
What followed, in both arenas, was a crisis: first a surge of migration to the southern border, then the surge in gas prices driven by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
There is endless debate about how much the initial Biden policy shifts contributed to the twin crises; a reasonable bet is that his immigration moves did help inspire the migration surge, while his oil-lease policy will affect the price of gas in 2024 but didn’t change much in the current crunch.
But crucially, both policy shifts framed these crises, however unintentionally, as things the Biden administration sought — more illegal immigration and higher gas prices, just what liberals always want! And then instead of a dramatic attempt at reframing, prioritizing domestic energy and border enforcement, the Biden White House fiddled with optics and looked for temporary fixes: handing Kamala Harris the border portfolio, turning the dials on the strategic petroleum reserve and generally confirming the public’s existing bias that if you want a party to take immigration enforcement and oil production seriously, you should vote Republican.
The second key failure also belongs to the administration’s early days. In February 2021, when congressional Democrats were preparing a $1.9 trillion stimulus, a group of Republican senators counteroffered with a roughly $600 billion proposal. Flush with overconfidence, the White House spurned the offer and pushed three times as much money into the economy on a party-line vote.
What followed was what a few dissenting center-left economists, led by Larry Summers, had predicted: the worst acceleration of inflation in decades, almost certainly exacerbated by the sheer scale of the relief bill. Whereas had Biden taken the Republicans up on their proposal or even simply counteroffered and begun negotiations, he could have started his administration off on the bipartisan footing his campaign had promised while hedging against the inflationary dangers that ultimately arrived.
The third failure is likewise a failure to hedge and triangulate, but this time on culture rather than economic policy. Part of Biden’s appeal as a candidate was his longstanding record as a social moderate — an old-school, center-left Catholic rather than a zealous progressive.
His presidency has offered multiple opportunities to actually inhabit the moderate persona. On transgender issues, for instance, the increasing qualms of European countries about puberty blockers offered potential cover for Biden to call for greater caution around the use of medical interventions for gender-dysphoric teenagers. Instead, his White House has chosen to effectively deny that any real debate exists, positioning the administration to the left of Sweden.
Then there is the Dobbs decision, whose unpopularity turned abortion into a likely political winner for Democrats — provided, that is, that they could cast themselves as moderates and Republicans as zealots.
Biden could have led that effort, presenting positions he himself held in the past — support for Roe v. Wade but also for late-term restrictions and the Hyde Amendment — as the natural national consensus, against the pro-life absolutism of first-trimester bans. Instead, he’s receded and left Democratic candidates carrying the activist line that absolutely no restrictions are permissible, an unpopular position perfectly designed to squander the party’s post-Roe advantage.
The question in the last case, and to some extent with all these issues, is whether a more moderate or triangulating Biden could have held his coalition together.
But this question too often becomes an excuse for taking polarization and 50-50 politics for granted. A strong president, by definition, should be able to pull his party toward the center when politics demands it. So if Biden feels he can’t do that, it suggests that he’s internalized his own weakness and accepted in advance what probably awaits the Democrats next month: defeat.