It is not unusual for the political party of a newly elected president to suffer losses in the midterm elections two years after winning the race. But it is unusual for a sitting president to suffer as rapid a loss of popularity and support as President Joe Biden has weathered as he and his party struggle to exercise leadership while they control both houses of Congress and the White House.
What began as much-promoted efforts to pass historic infrastructure, social service and climate change legislation has degenerated into a messy family food fight within the Democratic Party. As a result, last week’s elections in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere may not be so much a bellwether of likely results in 2022 as they are a message from voters about the state of governance in 2021.
In Virginia, where Biden carried the state by 10 percentage points, Republican Glenn Youngkin, a political novice, won election as governor over former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Virginia Republicans also took back the state’s House of Delegates. In New Jersey, Democrats were stunned when incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy barely won reelection in a nail-biter that in many respects was even more sobering than the results in Virginia.
Youngkin was able to win Virginia by tapping into voter concerns relating to kitchen table issues – including the highly charged issue of parental rights in the area of school education. For his part, McAuliffe erred when he first sought to make the election all about former President Donald Trump and then stumbled on the education issue during his final debate with Youngkin. There, McAuliffe notoriously declared: “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision. I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
But it wasn’t the education issue alone that influenced voters. Voters were also frustrated by the inability of the Democratic-led Congress and the White House to get anything done. And they are upset by internecine squabbles over consequential legislation that has pitted the party’s progressive wing against more centrist voices. Thus, even though Democrats finally passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill last weekend, they continued to fight over the rapidly diminishing Build Back Better social safety net and climate change bill.
We wonder whether progressives appreciate how profoundly their inability to navigate political compromise has hurt their party. Instead of celebrating the accomplishment of the single biggest infrastructure investment in American history since the building of the nation’s interstate highway system, Democrats are left to explain why six progressives voted against the bill and why wokeness is losing its grip on Democratic voters around the country.
There is still time for Democrats to right their ship. But it is going to take work. If, however, Democrats choose to continue doing what they have been doing, last week’s election results may prove to be the bellwether the party fears.