Nearly two weeks out from the 2022 midterm elections, Democratic ebullience has yet to fade. That is a testament to the general impression going into that election cycle that a Republican wave was a foregone conclusion. But the reprieve voters granted the party in power, to the extent that handing the GOP control of the House and putting an end to the legislative phase of Joe Biden’s first term is a “reprieve,” was a qualified verdict.
Republican candidates benefited from a sizeable shift toward the GOP in much of the Union, with the most pronounced swings in dark blue strongholds like California, New York, and New Jersey. Hispanic voters shifted rightward to the tune of ten points. African-American voters, too, voted Republican in unusual numbers, contributing to the worst Democratic performance among these demographics since the early 1990s. Compared with the 2018 midterms, Asian Americans voted 17 points more Republican. The white suburban women who fueled that year’s backlash against unified Republican governance voted Republican this year by 7 points.
At present, the GOP’s House candidates earned about 3.5 million more votes than their Democratic counterparts, but the geographic distribution of those votes produced only the slimmest of Republican majorities. That and rank unpalatability of some of the Republican nominees contributed to a better-than-expected night for Democrats. It would, however, be a mistake to conclude that voters went to the polls eager to ratify the Biden administration’s record in office. And it’s a mistake the Biden White House seems keen on making.
Joe Biden opened his remarks celebrating the election results with a perfunctory nod to the issue set that was supposed to fuel the red wave. Voters, the president said, “spoke clearly about their concerns,” including “the need to get inflation down,” “crime and public safety,” and the growing federal deficit. Biden congratulated himself for beating back historic headwinds, “but the voters were also clear that they’re still frustrated,” he said. “I get it.” He didn’t.
When asked what he intended to change in response to the voters’ verdict, the president responded definitively and without hesitation: “nothing.” It seems like he meant it.
In the weeks leading up to the midterm vote, speculation swirled around the potential for a shakeup of Biden’s unusually static senior staff, including, among others, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain. When he’s not tweeting, Klain can often be found encouraging the Democratic Party’s progressive members to indulge their most errant flights of political fancy.
Whether it’s violating the Hatch Act or endorsing the idea that inflation is a “high class problem,” Klain has created his share of headaches for the administration he serves. The chief of staff has been accused by his party’s moderates of adulterating Biden’s “core brand as a pragmatic, empathetic politician” who is “willing to compromise” with his opponents. But as rumors of his forthcoming sacrifice to appease an angry electorate began to swirl, so, too, did unconvincing claims that only Klain could keep this unwieldy ship afloat.
If the most you could say of Klain’s tenure is that he is “uniquely well-suited for an era of more intense partisan combat,” his cheering section on the left confirms this impression. Politico reported on Monday that progressives see the “better-than-expected midterms as vindication of the president’s decision to pursue an expansive agenda,” and they’re “openly rooting for Ron Kalin to stay on as Biden’s top aide.” Dominating figures, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Pramila Jayapal, went on the record praising Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda and his chief emissary to the far left. “The goodwill toward Klain has also sparked fears that, if he departs, it would deal a devastating blow to the past two years of progress,” Politico reported.
It’s clever framing. If you’ve convinced yourself that voters have all but ratified the Democratic Party’s performance these last two years, any concession to its critics—especially the jettisoning of a progressives’ line into the White House—isn’t just unnecessary but a misreading of the political landscape. Even if that’s just spin, it’s effective spin. There are still Democrats who are willing to observe that just because their party dodged a bullet doesn’t mean they’re in The Matrix, but they declined to be named by Politico’s reporters.
In some ways, it would be fitting if the White House resolved to change nothing about its approach to governance in the next two years. The election itself resolved little. The voters did not communicate to Democrats that it would be wise if American fiscal policy did not actively undermine American monetary policy. Try as they might, they did not convey to politicians in crime-addled cities the need to change their ways, and they didn’t signal their apprehension over the administration’s failure to police the border. At least, that’s what left-wing reformers are telling themselves and anyone willing to listen.
Since Democrats owe much of their successes to swing voters who “somewhat disapprove” of Biden, it’s not the most compelling argument in favor of the president and his approach to governance. And unless the forces of entropy are unusually kind, the issues that animated Republican voters in 2022 will still be resonant in 2024. Republicans should be so lucky.