If You Feel Better After the Midterms, Just Wait

From a column on politico.com by Jeff Greenfield headlines “If You’re Breathing a Sigh of Relief About the Midterms, Just Wait”:

If you’re in a celebratory mood today, you’ve got good reason. The fears — including my fears — about a wave of election-deniers sweeping into offices did not happen. Virtually every swing-state denialist candidate for governor, attorney general or secretary of state was defeated. Democratic governors in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will serve as bulwarks to keep their elections fair; Democrats actually gained control of the Legislature in Michigan, and Republicans did not win veto-proof majorities in Wisconsin or North Carolina. In every state where abortion was on the ballot, voters chose to protect it. And GOP Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert may go down to defeat, thus instantly raising the collective IQ of the House of Representatives.

Looking at the broader picture, the likely congressional outcome — a Republican House with a single-digit majority and an evenly divided Senate — represents one of the best achievements for the White House’s party in decades. (Indeed, the probable loss of the House has less to do with this midterm than with the 2020 election; Democrats lost a dozen seats in the House then — the worst performance by a White House-winning party in memory, leaving Democrats with no room for error this time.) It also provides ample reason for schadenfreude, as reports from Mar-a-Lago suggest former President Donald Trump is reenacting John Belushi’s meltdowns on the old Saturday Night Live “Weekend Updates.”

The more high-minded of you can take satisfaction in the idea that voters are capable of persuasion, that the much-derided warning that “democracy is on the ballot” — along with anger over the overturning of abortion rights — had salience even in a time when inflation and crime seemed to have more potency. One of the biggest misses of at least some preelection polls was the “finding” that independents were flocking to Republicans; on Election Day, they broke for Democrats.

Now for a reality check. We are likely sailing into some powerful storms, with daunting prospects for both parties and for the health of the body politic.

First, imagine you’re a mainstream Republican (assuming there are any left) with hopes of taking back the White House. You’ve watched Trump successfully get his choices nominated to high office, only to see most of them go down to defeat. You want your party to “move on” — that Ron DeSantis landslide in Florida was the highlight of your election night — but you also know that Trump is still the favorite of your party’s base, and that he is about to announce for president again. And while you may not say this aloud, you know that if Trump is somehow denied the 2024 nomination, he will angrily denounce the “rigged” result and do all he can to undermine the party in the general election.

Now imagine you are Kevin McCarthy, on the cusp of finally realizing your yearslong hope for the speakership. You’ll likely be dealing with a Republican majority in single digits — and some of those House members have already expressed less than full-throated support for your reign. With a paper-thin majority, you will be at the mercy of the most extreme elements of your party, including all-out propeller heads like Marjorie Taylor Greene. You’ve already sought to appease your members, but what will the cost of that be next year? Impeaching the president is the least of it. When your majority decides to block a raise in the debt ceiling unless there are massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare, you’ll either be leading that charge or risking your speakership. Are you prepared to default on the nation’s credit obligations and potentially spark a global financial crisis? The dominant MAGA wing of your party seems fully prepared to do so.

Democrats don’t get off easy either. Look at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Right now, the White House is in victory lap mood, arguing that Biden’s much-derided warnings about democracy had real political impact. But there are two unpleasant facts that should dampen enthusiasm.

First, the chance for any substantive achievements in the next two years are nil. Biden will be facing a Republican House in full MAGA force (where dozens of election deniers were returned or elected to office). In a chamber where a huge majority of Republicans say Biden is an illegitimate president, the prospects for any cooperation, including avoiding a financial meltdown, are marginal at best. Throw in determined opposition to everything from aid to Ukraine to Covid responses, and the impact of a GOP majority at the mercy of its most zealous elements is (to borrow from Sen. Susan Collins) concerning.

Second, look at this finding from the exit polls: More than two-thirds of voters, including a significant majority of Democrats, do NOT want Biden to run again.

This is not simply a matter of low approval ratings; presidents can recover from bad numbers. But there’s another looming number that can’t be changed: the number “8.” On Nov. 20, Biden will be 80 years old. We have never had a president, nor a presidential candidate, running in the ninth decade of life. Maybe 80 is the new 60 — Iowans, after all, just sent 89-year-old Chuck Grassley back to the Senate — but it is a key reason why so many in Biden’s own party want a different candidate. That desire, in turn, leads to more questions. History suggests that if Biden does not run, his vice president is the logical successor. (In fact, every Democratic vice president since Alben Barkley has eventually become the party’s nominee). But Kamala Harris’ performance as a presidential candidate in 2020 did not engender confidence in her strengths as a top of the ticket nominee. Yet turning away from Harris might alienate Black Democratic women, the single most loyal element of the party.

What we face, in sum, is a post-midterm political environment that promises migraine-inducing dilemmas for both parties, and a climate in which once-unthinkable policy consequences appear uncomfortably close to reality.

Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.

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