Democrats Could Be Damned if They Do, Damned if They Don’t

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
September 30, 2021

Serious conflict on Capitol Hill over budget reconciliation is hardly new. A fight over a president’s signature legislative package, in this case the bipartisan infrastructure framework, is obviously not unheard of. Nor is the threat of a government shutdown. After all, since the current budget and appropriations process was put into place in 1976, there have been 22 government shutdowns that resulted in the furloughs of federal workers in at least some part of the government. We’ve also seen the debt ceiling turn into a political football in recent years.

But to have all of these legislative challenges coming at more or less the same time? That is something. President Biden’s sinking approval ratings, now below those of every other post–World War II president at this point in their tenures save Donald Trump, only adds to the pressure, as does the political reality of having to defend a 50-50 Senate and only a five-seat majority in the House in the next midterm election. It’s become something of a cliché that an upcoming week or month will be the “most pivotal” or “the most decisive” of a presidency. But over the next few weeks, the cliche may be quite apt.

In short, this could be a week or two or three that Democrats may not soon forget. Nobody can credibly challenge the savvy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and other than perhaps Lyndon Johnson, no president has spent more time as a member of Congress or presiding over the Senate than Biden has. But all three will be severely tested.

Democrats are correct when they say that many of the individual elements in the pair of spending packages—the more traditional, physical-infrastructure bill, and the expansion of the social safety net via reconciliation—score well when tested in polls. If enacted, they’ll surely prove as popular as Obamacare. After all, while the Affordable Care Act initially had real political problems and contributed to Democrats losing their congressional majorities, now its approval ratings are in positive territory. But how much of it will be seen, felt, and touched by voters between now and the midterm elections, just over 14 months away?

No matter how things shake out, Democrats risk political exposure. Should they succeed in their legislative ambitions, will Biden and Democrats be seen as going too far, the same type of overreach that has tripped up many a president and congressional majority over the years? If they don’t get the job done, will voters perceive Biden and Democrats as ineffective or incompetent? Both are key questions given that midterm elections are almost always referenda on the party in power. If things get done and are reasonably popular, voters go with the “stay the course” option, but with overreach or failure, that triggers the “time for a change” mindset instead.

One useful indicator of how voters are judging Democrats will come this November, when Virginia holds its gubernatorial elections. Polls show former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat, clinging to a slim lead over private-equity executive Glenn Youngkin, the Republican—a surprise given the state’s strong trend towards Democrats over the past decade.

Democrats have carried Virginia in 13 of the last 14 contests for president, Senate, or governor, and their margins have been getting wider. Biden carried the state by 10 points last year, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 2-point win four years before. Democrat Ralph Northam won four years ago by 9 points; McAuliffe won four years before by a bit less than 3 points.

This year, McAuliffe is still a good candidate who’s avoided major mistakes. The question is whether the political environment is shaping up to be a headwind for McAuliffe. If Republicans are disproportionately fired up, or if Democrats are growing lethargic, it should show itself in the Old Dominion. Virginia is the only state where governors cannot seek a second consecutive term, so all gubernatorial races there are open-seat contests, and held just a year after a presidential term begins. That makes the election a good canary in a coal mine for the party in power.

Before any House Republicans indulge themselves in too much schadenfreude, they'd better start thinking about a question that is sure to come up next year in debates and interviews: “If Republicans win control of the House next year, will you vote for Donald Trump for speaker?” There is no requirement that the speaker of the House be an actual House member. Knowing that many in the Republican base will want to hear one answer and swing voters, particularly suburban women, a very different answer, that will be a very tricky question. The idea of Trump offering himself as a congressional leader for Republicans briefly came up a few months ago but in the last week or two has begun to be whispered in House GOP circles again. As crazy as that sounds to some people, I promise you will hear it next year. And it’s scaring some savvy GOP pros.

For Biden and Democrats, this coming stretch will be decisive. And that is no cliché.