Leveling complaints about the party’s overripe leadership to its prohibitive focus on abortion and the health of America’s democratic institutions, those Democrats who haven’t spent the last several weeks whistling past their own graveyard have trained their fire on the White House. True to form, the Biden administration is only just beginning to belatedly counter the ongoing effort to blame the party’s misfortunes on the hapless president. Just as characteristically, the narratives the administration is crafting for itself are muddled and conflicting to the point of incoherence.
The White House seems to have selected Politico Playbook as the venue where its preferred fables will generate the most traction. The first attempt, published on Monday, posits that Joe Biden will have a legitimate claim to the argument that he weathered the storm of 2022 if his party fares better than Bill Clinton’s, Barack Obama’s, or Donald Trump’s did in their first midterm elections. Politico itself seems interested in helping out, by declaring that it will not use the “W-word” [wave] unless the GOP takes 40 or more seats away from Democrats.
Nonsense. Politico, along with every other political political-media outfit, will almost certainly call it a “wave” if Republicans win as few as 23 seats, which would give the party the precise House majority Democrats won in the wave election year 2018. In 2018, like 2010 and 1994, the party out of power entered the year with fewer than 200 seats in the lower chamber. Today’s GOP, by contrast, walks into Election Day with 212 seats already in its control. A wave strong enough to secure what playbook insists would just be a “normal midterm,” “below what would be expected given Biden’s unpopularity,” would, therefore, be strong enough to register in statewide contests for governor and Senate, too. The voters’ verdict in the event of such a “normal midterm” would be hard to miss unless you’re committed to missing it.
So, that one didn’t stick. What’s next? Well, in today’s Playbook, the White House is road-testing the idea that the Democratic Party is united behind Biden to a remarkable degree, given the pressure on the party’s members to distance themselves from their unpopular president. “If you look at what Dems are running on—it’s the president’s agenda,” one Biden campaign operative told Politico reporters. “They’re all embracing it.” Here, too, the outlet lends credibility to the claim. It contends, for example, that Democrats aren’t being dragged down by anything so unpopular as the Affordable Care Act.
Indeed, Democrats aren’t facing a backlash against one particular piece of legislation but the cumulative effect of the wild spending spree they’ve been on for nearly two years. Democratic lawmakers understand the mess they’ve made for themselves. “Democrats Spent $2 Trillion to Save the Economy,” the New York Times headline read. “They Don’t Want to Talk About It.” Independent voters long ago made the connection between rising consumer costs and government’s refusal to become “more fiscally responsible.” When Democrats passed the “Inflation Reduction Act”—itself a Trojan Horse of a bill that consisted primarily of spending on climate-change initiatives while nonetheless acknowledging the primacy of inflation as an electoral issue—only 24 percent of voters said it would do anything to “make inflation better.”
When the White House isn’t insisting that congressional Democrats are united behind their president, it’s castigating congressional Democrats for failing to get behind the president. In her newsletter for Puck, reporter Tara Palmeri found that the White House is “leaning toward delicately arguing” that Democrats would have fared better at the polls “if Congress had been able to pass his very popular legislation earlier into his term.” This self-congratulatory yarn doubles as an indictment of his party’s “camera-mugging, foot-dragging moderates, like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who just wouldn’t support his F.D.R.-ish $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill.”
That’s the kind of thanks Joe Manchin deserves for saving his party from passing another inflation-driving spending bill only to cave at the last minute. These attacks on the party’s most moderate senators in purple and red states, respectively, may help burnish their tarnished images back home. It does not, however, advance the notion that Biden is in total command of his party.
Finally, there’s the perennial punching bag of last resort: “the media.”
“The media holds Democrats to a different, often higher, standard than Republicans, they say,” Punchbowl News reported on Tuesday. “The media is too focused on intra-party Democratic fights and not a potentially crumbling U.S. democracy, they add.” Let’s put aside the fact that the White House itself is just as focused on those “intra-party” feuds and has been for months. Let’s also ignore the self-flattery embedded in the notion that Democrats operate on a higher plain of moral probity and governmental competency. The White House isn’t entirely wrong that the press owns its share of the blame for this debacle, but not because they were too hard on Biden. Just the opposite.
The political press contributed mightily to a party-wide delusion that voters would subordinate their sense of acute economic precarity to matters such as access to abortion services and the threat Republicans pose to the electoral certification process, which isn’t even a midterm issue. But the press didn’t force Democrats to highlight those issues at the expense of more salient features of the political landscape. The party did that all on its own.
The wave isn’t even ashore yet, and already the president is clinging to whatever might float. If these unconvincing attempts by the Biden White House to absolve themselves of blame for what’s coming tell us anything, it is that the president and the administration beholden to him aren’t going to go down without a fight. Already, the president is the subject of graceful efforts to shepherd’s crook him off the political stage, but Joe Biden isn’t taking the hint. The gentle nudging is sure to get more forceful, and the White House sees it coming. But first, it seems we all must endure an exhausting game of “would you believe” before reality sinks in.