The 2020 election demonstrated how fragile our democracy is. As Donald Trump tried, by means both legal and illegal, to overturn the results of a free and fair election, only the courts and a thin line of courageous Republican election officials guaranteed that the peoples’ choice prevailed.
But the safeguards are weaker. Although the Supreme Court upheld the last lower-court dismissal of multiple Trump-inspired lawsuits charging election fraud, in July the court upheld new voting restrictions enacted in Arizona.
And many of the Republican election officials who refused to back up Trump’s bogus fraud charges have been threatened, fired, or are being challenged for reelection by Trump followers. Meanwhile, 17 Republican-controlled state legislatures have joined Arizona in making voting more difficult: In several of them, legislators are trying to seize control of election management, including power to replace county election officials or even decide how a state’s election results should be certified, regardless of the popular vote.
Republicans claim they are acting restore faith in elections, but—with fraud repeatedly shown to be rare and of no effect in in 2020—Trump and his followers are really undermining faith in American elections.
The result of this frenzy of activity in furtherance of Trump’s “Big Lie”—that he won the 2020 election (and that he won in a “landslide,” no less) —is that the preservation of American-style self-government depends on Democrats retaining control of Congress in 2022.
Republicans have shown that they simply can’t be trusted to safeguard democracy. Donald Trump now owns the Republican Party as GOP politicians up and down the line do his bidding, out of fear or belief.
Even after a mob of Trump supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Republicans in Congress voted overwhelmingly against impeaching and convicting him for his actions and inaction. Eight GOP senators and 147 representatives voted not to certify Electoral College counts submitted by two states (had they prevailed, there would have more). Then only six GOP senators voted in favor of forming a truly bipartisan 9/11-style commission to investigate the insurrection, killing the proposal by filibuster. After Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi established a select committee to conduct an investigation, Republican leaders attacked her as responsible for the riot, falsely claiming she is in charge of security at the Capitol.
Republicans who voted against Trump on any issue relating to Jan. 6 now face primary opponents backed by him and censure by their state parties. Rep. Liz Cheney, the most vocal Trump critic in the GOP, lost her House leadership post. Trump has even attacked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who criticized him after Jan. 6 but also blocked creation of the 9/11 commission. It’s classic authoritarian behavior—demanding total loyalty from his followers and total control of his faction, and assailing any rivals in power.
Lately, Trump reportedly has encouraged his followers to believe he can somehow be reinstated as president later this month, and the Department of Homeland Security is concerned that the violent acts of Jan. 6 may be repeated when he’s not.
The sad, but inevitable conclusion is that if Republicans take control of either chamber in Congress, they will not try to do what’s best for America as a whole. They will do what Trump tells them to do, probably starting with trying to undo everything President Biden and the Democrats in Congress have done during the previous two years.
So how to forestall this nightmare?
For starters, if Democrats are to prevail next November, Biden must be seen as a successful moderate-progressive president—one who can defy the historical pattern that presidential parties almost invariably lose seats in their first midterm election.
The last two Democratic presidents s who launched major initiatives without GOP support, Bill Clinton (tax increases and health care reform) and Barack Obama (Obamacare and anti-recession stimulus spending), suffered historic shellackings in the ensuing midterms—54 House seats and eight Senate seats in 1994, and 63 House and six Senate seats in 2010. Biden, who has multiple big programs in his policy agenda, has smaller Democratic margins in Congress than Clinton and Obama. In other words, the Democrats must hang on to almost all of their contested districts and states.
McConnell, who earned the moniker “grim reaper” for blocking Obama, was supposed to be a willing negotiating partner for Biden. Instead, the Senate Republican leader has pronounced himself “100% focused” on defeating Biden’s legislative agenda. So far, Biden has succeeded in passing a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package (with no Republican votes). He is trying to work out a bipartisan $1 trillion “physical infrastructure” package. McConnell isn’t the obstruction with this legislation, as Senate negotiators and the White House sound optimistic. But with Rep. Kevin McCarthy openly angling for Pelosi’s job, nothing is certain in the House.
Trump is actively trying to scuttle infrastructure spending. He’s telling Republicans to oppose it, saying passage means letting “the Radical Left play you for weak fools and losers,” and he has threatened primary challenges against GOP legislators who support it. This, despite his promising to pass a $2 trillion bill while president (then never delivering). Republicans who support it obviously want money for roads, bridges and broadband for their constituents.
But they don’t like the contents of Biden’s follow-up proposal—a $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” program, which would expand Medicare, caregiving for the disabled and elderly, and child care, while funding universal pre-kindergarten, free community college, national paid family leave, and extended child tax credits. And they don’t like the corporate and capital gains tax increases Democrats propose to pay for it all. So the Democratic plan is to pass it as a “budget reconciliation” measure requiring only Democratic votes.
If, next November, the GOP captures one chamber—most likely, the House—whatever Biden can get done in his first two years can’t be easily undone, but he will get nothing more passed. If the GOP gets control of both chambers, Republicans will try to reverse anything he has accomplished. He’ll have only his veto pen as protection. Stalemate from 2023 through 2024—and an unsuccessful-seeming Biden presidency—could reelect Trump (or someone backed by him), in which case constitutional norms and respect for election results and the rule of law would again be in peril.
Right now, Biden enjoys a 6.4-percentage-point net positive job approval rating, according to RealClearPolitics. It’d be a good number for him to carry into 2022—if he can sustain it. Polls on the generic congressional ballot—asking voters which party they plan to support—also looked good for Democrats, averaging +7 percentage points, but there were only two, and they date back to the spring. Recent polls, though, show the percentage of voters identifying as Republicans or GOP leaning to be dropping. A Pew Research Center poll in January found that the GOP had a minus-22-point favorable/unfavorable rating, with the Democrats at only minus-three.
But these numbers are not set in stone. Republicans will exploit anything that can be characterized as Biden/Democratic failures: rising gasoline prices and general inflation, chaos at the border, rising violent crime rates, a likely humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as a result of Biden’s total pullout of U.S. troops. All this comes amid surging COVID hospitalization rates (even if they are largely occurring in GOP-run states where vaccination rates are lowest) and sometimes-confusing federal anti-COVID messaging, plus bound-to-be botches and cost overruns on infrastructure projects.
So what do Democrats need to do to retain (or expand) control of Congress? They need to mount a historically aggressive fundraising, legal and get-out-the-vote effort to counter historical trends and GOP-enacted voting restrictions in key states. They need to pass as much of Biden’s agenda as possible—and be willing to pare it down if necessary. They need to make it clear that (despite GOP and media characterization) that they are not “radical”—not led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” or caving in to “wokeness” (Republicans are all too willing to trumpet perceived hot-button social issues such as transgender bathrooms and critical race theory). They’ve got to make sure that tax increases, if they can enact them, don’t (as Biden has promised) increase burdens on the middle class. And they have to ensure that enacted program don’t have negative effects, as extended unemployment benefits in Biden’s COVID relief package did to discourage returning to work.
Biden has a worthy overall goal: to demonstrate to America and the world that a democracy can accomplish good things as well or better then China’s authoritarian system. But he’s got to do a better job of convincing voters it’s important.
Democrats have to aggressively exploit Republican weaknesses, a litany that includes their absence of any positive agenda, a proclivity to enrich the wealthy and cut benefits for working people, widespread corruption in the Trump administration, Trump’s encouragement of extremist groups, congressional Republicans’ opposition to learning how the Jan. 6 insurrection was planned and how to ensure it never happens again, the explosion of COVID cases in GOP-dominated states (where governors have discouraged mask-wearing). Finally, 2022 must be a referendum on GOP efforts to make voting more difficult as a response to Trump’s claims of election fraud—and the fact that a majority of Republicans’ believe him.
The biggest issue in the campaign, though, is whether the electorate wants to return power to a party whose leaders are in the thrall of a man who has countenanced violence and illegality to keep himself in power. Ultimately, it’s a test of Americans’ trust in democracy.