Unless Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer suddenly emerge as the 21st-century heirs to escape artist Harry Houdini, Democrats’ legislative agenda will continue to remain underwater while chained upside down in a small box.
An eloquent Biden speech on voting rights is unlikely to persuade Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to abandon their stubborn infatuation with the Senate filibuster. Any burst of optimism about Manchin’s support for some new version of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda will inevitably be dashed by an updated pronouncement from the West Virginia blocking back.
Biden’s only major legislative victory in months came in early November when the House finally acceded to the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. And even that accomplishment required 13 GOP votes to offset the petulant opposition of six left-wing Democrats.
None of this should be surprising with a 50-50 Senate and a House majority that can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But most partisan Democrats — particularly the party activists — treat each legislative setback as if the last polar icecap had just melted.
Never in modern memory has a political party that controls the White House and Congress been this pessimistic.
Certainly, Republican intransigence and the GOP’s indefensible and willful amnesia about Jan. 6, 2021, play a major role. But other factors have contributed to Democrats’ the-sky-is-falling mentality.
What afflicts the Democrats is more than just awareness of the historical pattern that the president's party (with just two modern exceptions) loses House seats in off-year elections. Or that Biden’s poll numbers seem destined to be mired in the doldrums as long as the pandemic rages.
At the core of the Democratic despair is the sad-eyed belief that democracy itself is doomed.
Certainly the threat of a 2024 presidential bid by Donald Trump carries with it legitimate fears of American autocracy. The idea of Trump restored to the White House, surrounded only by sycophants, is unquestionably a portrait of a dystopian future.
But beyond Trump, there is also a prevailing sense among Democrats that politics is a rigged casino — and that they are destined to spend the rest of the decade losing at every turn of the wheel. This helps explain the desperation with which Democrats are trying to pass everything imaginable before the moment-of-doom 2022 elections.
Democrats spend a disproportionate amount of time wailing about the unfairness of a Senate in which Wyoming has the same representation as California. Of course, this mismatch is impossible to justify, except on the practical grounds that the one-state-two-votes principle is deeply embedded in the Constitution.
Democrats might be better served by examining why Manchin and Montana’s Jon Tester have prospered in Trump states rather than creating fantasy worlds where the Senate is suddenly transformed into an equalitarian body.
On the House side, gerrymandering played a major role in fostering the dire Democratic outlook throughout most of 2021.
Every political article seemed obligated to note that — because of disproportionate GOP control of state legislatures — Republicans had complete control over the redistricting of 188 House seats while Democrats could only freely map 74 seats. (The other House seats would be drawn by independent redistricting commissions or legislative compromise in states with shared political power).
The widespread expectation was that Republicans would gain something like 10 House seats — and the majority — from new maps alone. As a result of the GOP’s purported cartographic prowess, downcast Democrats assumed that a House majority would be out of reach for them not only in 2022, but throughout the decade.
While redistricting is still in flux in 16 states (including Florida and New York), it seems evident that Democrats can step down from the window ledge.
As David Wasserman, the widely respected redistricting guru at The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter, wrote last week, “The surprising good news for the Democrats: on current trajectory, there will be a few more Biden-won districts after redistricting than there are now.”
What appears to have occurred in many states is that House incumbents, who often have major sway in redistricting, were (surprise) much more concerned with guaranteeing themselves safe seats than in maximizing overall GOP advantage. The larger moral: Never underestimate the politics of selfishness.
Make no mistake, the odds are daunting for Democrats to hold the House in 2022. But the big difference is that there is no structural, map-based reason why, in theory, the party could not win back the House in 2024 and hold it for the rest of the decade.
What that means, in reality, is that 2022 is not necessarily the last chance this decade to tackle climate change and address income inequality. If Biden or another Democrat were elected president in 2024, the opportunities may be there for ambitious legislative action predicated on more comfortable congressional Democratic majorities.
Exaggerated fears of gerrymandering contributed to the biggest political mistake of the Biden presidency — larding the Build Back Better legislation with the entire Democratic wish list. Glib talk of a $3.5-trillion reconciliation package led to bitter disappointment on the left when the spending program was halved to supposedly meet Manchin’s objections.
Now, it seems conceivable that Democrats — for all their bold promises — could end up with nothing. Even if Manchin were to suddenly reverse field and agree to, say, a $1.5 trillion bill, the damage is done. The political costs from the frustrating Lucy-and-the-football negotiations in the Senate already outweigh the short-term political benefits of actually passing something.
In short, Democratic pessimism has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A party panicked about the future can, through legislative desperation, act in a way that politically jeopardizes that very future.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.