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‘Change that subject’: Biden’s economic pivot lasted 48 hours as midterms turn spooky for Democrats

Biden pivoted to economic message. Pelosi countered with 'we have to change that subject'

Halloween season is turning out as spooky as this New York City Jack O' Lantern for Democratic candidates.
Halloween season is turning out as spooky as this New York City Jack O' Lantern for Democratic candidates. (Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Democrats are suddenly running from goblins, even in previously competitive midterm races. Forget Halloween: Election Day is shaping up as the scariest day of the year for Democrats.

Analysts are crunching the final pieces of data as this year’s midterm elections enter their final week and some are again projecting a “red wave.” And some Democratic activists are practically screaming for Democrats to talk up the economy — which has resisted falling into a formal recession despite record inflation, high gas prices, a supply chain backlog and a war in Europe, among other forces — and their legislative record in the final days of this cycle.

“We think the president and Democrats would benefit from going on the offensive on the economy. Where Democratic candidates are doing this, they tend to have more success conveying what we’re for,” said Sarah Baron, campaign director for Unrig Our Economy, an advocacy group urging Democrats to talk up economic issues. “Every radio ad, every mailer [should be] talking about the economy. It gets back to that old adage: It’s the economy.”

No matter whether candidates are talking to voters about access to abortion or rental rates or anything else, Baron said Unrig has concluded “the entry way is the economy” because “every issue is an economic issue.” That means, to Baron, Democrats would be wise to “focus on what people are feeling and seeing daily. At the end of the day, everyone is struggling with costs across the board.”

But is it too late for team blue to get back in the game?

The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, via its Sabato’s Crystal Ball, for the first time this cycle formally projects Republicans will clear the magic number of House seats to take control: 218. But the center’s Kyle Kondik concludes the big red machine likely won’t stop there.

“After these changes, 218 seats at least Lean Republican, while 195 at least Lean Democratic, and there are 22 Toss-ups. Splitting the Toss-ups evenly, 11-11, would give Republicans 229 seats, or a net gain of 16,” he wrote in an explainer that published Wednesday morning. “We suspect the Republicans will do better than just a split in the Toss-ups, so our updated forecast is a GOP gain in the high teens or low 20s.”

On the Senate side, Democratic candidates are in big trouble. With so many involved in toss-up races, it is now more than reasonable to see a potential GOP majority margin of as high as 53-47.

And that is before many voters will pay as much as 13.1 percent more than last October, according to consumer price index data, for Halloween candy. Incumbent presidents and the party that controls Congress historically get punished by voters for such things.

Democratic candidates are espousing their closing arguments with Election Day less than two weeks away. For them, however, the trouble is the arguments are inconsistent and contradictory.

Democrats surged in most polls over the summer, fueled by outrage and concern after the Supreme Court ended federal protections for abortions. But in recent weeks, Democratic candidates have begun to fall back.

President Joe Biden pivoted hard last week toward a new, late-cycle message, arguing last week that Republicans’ economic proposals — which he dubbed “Mega MAGA trickle down” — would plunge the country into a recession about which economists are split will or will not happen next year.

“Put it all together and the Republican plan would add about $3 trillion to the deficit — $3 trillion. That’s their plan,” he said Friday during remarks at the White House. “That’s what they did under my predecessor, and that’s what they intend to do again. Adding another $3 trillion to the deficit is reckless, it’s irresponsible, and it would make inflation worse.”

48 hours

In fact, the president used the i-word seven times during his 13-minute speech.

“It’s mega MAGA trickle-down. Mega MAGA trickle-down — the kind of policies that have failed the country before and will fail it again,” he said minutes later. “It’ll mean more wealth to the very wealthy, higher inflation for the middle class. That’s the choice we’re facing. That’s why I think that we’re going to do just fine.”

Biden was essentially daring Republican candidates to continue pushing their party’s various economic plans as the 2022 cycle turns down the homestretch.

Baron said her group was “encouraged” to hear Biden go so hard on the economy and the very different GOP proposals on those issues. “Any candidate who’s trying to appeal to any working person in this country … this has to be the message that hits home,” she said Wednesday. “We’re hoping to see that echoed up and down the ballot over the next few weeks.”

Biden’s pivot to a clear and aggressive economic message lasted all of 48 hours.

“When I hear people talk about inflation … we have to change that subject. Inflation is a global phenomenon,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told CBS’ “Face the Nation” program Sunday. “The EU, the European Union, the UK, the British, have higher inflation rates than we do here. … The fight is not about inflation. It’s about the cost of living.”

Oh. Well, then.

Pelosi’s remark was striking, especially because inflation has made the cost of living even higher. It also came after several polls taken this month have shown high consumer prices surging to the top of voters’ most-pressing issues. Inflation was identified by 46 percent of those surveyed earlier this month by Monmouth University as their top issue, up nine points from September.

Elections and democracy ranked second, at 38 percent this month — relatively steady from 37 percent last month. Crime was next, notably up three percentage points to 37 percent in early October, followed at 34 percent by immigration — up three points. Underscoring the economic focus instinct of Biden and other Democrats, jobs and unemployment went from 28 percent last month to 32 percent in October, according to Monmouth.

Democrats have little time to bring about the shift back in their direction Biden predicted. Perhaps that’s why they trotted out a new closing-argument candidate in Arizona and North Carolina this week. The ads target comments and votes by Arizona GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters and North Carolina Republican Rep. Ted Budd about making big changes to Social Security.

Where’s Joe?

What they have yet to trot out in a major way: Biden himself. Notably, Biden last week said he has requests from “16 to 18” campaigns for his presence on the trail before Election Day.

He was in Pittsburgh last week, a sign he and party strategists believe white independent voters are their path to victory in a tight Senate race pitting Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman against television doctor-turned-Republican candidate Mehmet Oz.

This week, it was back to upstate New York, where GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin has pulled closer to Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, then back to Pennsylvania to again raise money for Fetterman and other Democrats. There is no doubting Biden’s role as the party’s fundraiser in chief.

But the president is again slated to spend another late-cycle weekend — perhaps the final one that would bring swayable voters in a handful of key states with close House and statewide races into the Democratic column — at his Delaware home.

Why isn’t the president using Air Force One, as have predecessors from both parties, as a campaign asset?

“Biden’s approval is low enough that it may be hard for some Democrats to ultimately get over the finish line,” Dan Guild, a former federal prosecutor and attorney wrote recently for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “One of the largest sources of the gap between Biden’s disapproval and Republican candidate support is among independents. This gap is surely a surprise and presents the biggest unknown with respect to the Senate races.”

The Monmouth poll put Republicans ahead 49 percent to 45 percent when voters were asked which party they want to control Congress next year. But when asked whether it is “very important” for one party to hold the gavels, the survey showed a tie.

“Simply put, America remains divided, but the fundamentals and issue environment gives a small-but-consequential edge to Republicans,” said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth’s Polling Institute.

Halloween is just a few days away. For Democrats, the midterms are once again looking spooky. One can hear Capitol Hill’s legislative gears grinding to a halt — and its investigative ones beginning to turn.

Bottom line: If Democrats have an October surprise in their Halloween candy bowl, they better drop it in voters’ goody bags soon.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter. The next edition of this column will appear on Election Day: Tuesday, Nov. 8.

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