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Better Than Mid

Osita Nwanevu
5 min read
Joe Biden smiling at a podium during a post-midterms press conference
President Biden at a post-midterms press conference (Office of the President of the United States)

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.

Recent Work

I did a first pass at a Midterms Take for The Guardian last week:

Leave the rest of the numbers aside for a moment and consider these figures. The party of the sitting president has lost seats in the US House of Representatives in all but two midterms since 1946. The average loss is 27 seats. According to one analysis, presidents with approval ratings above 50% have seen their parties lose an average of 14 seats since 1946. Presidents with approval ratings below 50% have seen their parties lose an average of 37 seats.
Polls suggest Joe Biden’s current approval rating stands at about 41%. Republicans needed to take five seats to win the chamber. It remains likely that they’ll get them in the hours and days ahead. But the fact that they haven’t already ⁠– and that Democrats have a non-trivial chance of actually keeping the chamber ⁠– is highly significant. The Democrats may have had the best midterm a president’s party has experienced in 20 years ⁠– since 9/11 brought Republicans to slight, trend-bucking gains in the House and Senate in 2002.
[...] The structural advantages that the federal system affords the most conservative parts of the country have prevented the Republican party from fully bearing the costs of Trump’s rise and presidency – and they may well bring him to victory again in the next election. But Trump has been costly, and we can expect a cadre of Republican power-brokers and money men to pursue alternative candidates with more urgency now.
That ought to trigger a shift in messaging from Democrats. Throughout this election and the last, Biden and other party figures and candidates labored to give voters the impression Trumpism is a passing fad on the right; the dream of a redeemable Republican party is still alive in the rhetoric of Democratic leaders, if not genuinely in their hearts. But it’s substantively untrue and strategically unwise to maintain that the right’s threats to equality and the democratic process are contained fully in Trump’s person and the figures who’ve tethered themselves closely to him.
Over the last quarter century in particular, our politics have been coarsened and destabilized not by a narrow faction of Super-Ultra-Extra-Mega-Magnum-Maga Republicans, but by the Republican party and the wider conservative movement as a whole. It’s long past time for Democrats to make that case to the public plainly and unapologetically.

There’ll be another piece focused more squarely on the latest “post-Trump” moment in TNR soon.

Politics/Reasons to Be Cheerful

I came into the midterms last week having strongly implied my belief in one outcome  ⁠— that Democrats would lose at least the House by some indeterminate margin. The fact that Republicans haven’t totally clinched it yet speaks to just how extraordinary this election was. But it’ll all be over pretty soon; the masochists among you can follow along at the NYT. Historically speaking, it was a very simple and safe bet to make and had the added benefit of freeing me from following campaign coverage and the polls too closely ⁠— I doubted it would ultimately matter all that much, as far as the remainder of Biden’s term is concerned, how severe Democratic losses would be. It’s terrific that Democrats managed to keep the Senate and might actually pick up the seat when all is said and done; that will keep a lock on appointments. But a Republican House at any margin is bad, bad news. My expectation is that the shock the right’s feeling right now will dissipate a good deal in the coming weeks; while Trump’s announcement yesterday was a snooze, I think the hearings and investigations likely to grip the House in the next two years will prove that Trumpism is still very much alive.

Still, while I managed to hit a very large target in the macro-sense, I was as surprised as everyone else by how well Democrats managed to do. Let’s be clear: the election was a straightforward political win for the Democratic mainstream. As I’ve said since 2016, I think the left errs when it suggests that Democratic moderation isn’t a viable path to winning elections ⁠— it obviously is one, especially in swing districts and states. I don’t believe and never have believed that victory for the left will be a matter of just running unabashedly left-wing candidates in primaries everywhere and all the time, though primary contests are important. The political case for the left to make, and the case I’ve tried to make, is that moderation doesn’t win as reliably as it used to and that Democrats ought to be moving left as a matter of moral and policy substance. Both facts should motivate efforts to shift and persuade the electorate over time so that left-wing candidates become more viable. All of that said, it’s obvious that Republican extremism has breathed a little more life into the Democratic center. We’ll see what happens in 2024.

One of the hurdles for Democrats to overcome will be Biden’s own standing with the public ⁠— the results were such a surprise partially because he’s still fairly unpopular despite a record of real accomplishment. Early in the term, I was critical of writing that suggested he’d entered the pantheon of historically significant presidencies just by proposing then-unpassed legislation. Although his term since has fallen short in many critical respects and I don’t think he’s close to the leader the country needs in this moment, I think Biden’s significance is much clearer now ⁠— my qualified positive assessments of the IRA and all the rest still stand. To the extent that it matters, though I don’t think Biden deserves much personal credit at all, the midterms suggest the Democratic Party’s institutions and political infrastructure are in much better shape under him than they were under Obama. Beneath the headline federal successes last week, Democrats gained trifectas in Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Maryland and also managed to keep every single state legislative chamber they already held ⁠— a feat neither party has accomplished in a midterm since 1934.

The irony of the moment is that party moderates have cheated themselves out of being able to take a real bow here. As I’ve argued from from the very first post of this newsletter, the idea that the Biden administration and the party as a whole have been in thrall to progressive voices pushing the party dangerously leftward on immigration, policing, and other high-profile issues has always been ludicrous; the DCCC hasn’t actually been captured by the left, as much as I wish that were the case. What the results make clear, instead, is that the Democrats remain comfortably within the country’s political and cultural center ⁠— which has shifted left significantly since 2014. And that’s where they’ll stay absent continued efforts to pull voters even further leftward. Obviously, that work needs to continue.

A Song

"Every 1's a Winner" – Hot Chocolate (1978)