We’re nearing the end of a summer that’s been a real boon for the Biden administration and Democrats in Washington. The White House finally announced a partial student loan forgiveness plan that will deliver some long-awaited relief to millions of borrowers. The Dobbs decision in June and its aftermath have triggered a public backlash that’s reinforced support for abortion rights and opened the eyes of many Americans to the pro-life movement’s radicalism on the issue. The Department of Justice is evidently in the middle of a quite serious investigation into Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents — one that’s put him at the top of the headlines again in spectacular fashion and may well end in his prosecution. And, most consequentially, after a months-long stalemate, Congress managed to pass a flawed, but genuinely historic bill — the hilariously and shrewdly named Inflation Reduction Act, which happens to be, among other things, the largest single climate package ever passed by any country.
All these developments have fueled optimism that November’s midterms might not be as bad for Democrats as many have feared. And there’s some evidence that the party really has gotten a bounce: according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, Democrats have taken a narrow lead on the generic congressional ballot for the first time since last fall.
Still, history strongly suggests Democrats are likely to lose at least the House. The party holding the White House has lost House seats — 26 on average — in all but two midterms since World War II. Republicans only need to gain four in order to take the chamber this year. And despite better numbers for Democrats as a whole, the polls suggest voters are still down on both President Biden and the state of the economy, although things might change a bit on both fronts as inflation eases.
It’s doubtful rhetoric alone will shorten the long odds Democrats face heading into November. But it’s worth thinking through what the strongest possible message for the party might be. As it stands, their main focal point, beyond Congress’ accomplishments thus far in Biden’s term, has been the threat Donald Trump and his allies pose to the democratic process. Last week, Biden kicked off campaign season in earnest with a major address on just that subject. “Maga Republicans do not respect the Constitution,” he told his audience in Philadelphia. “They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now — as I speak, in state after state — to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”
While his critics in the press have called the speech divisive and overly partisan, Biden went out of his way to absolve most Republicans from responsibility for the January 6th attack and Trump’s wrongdoing. “Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are Maga Republicans,” he said. “Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans.” And one of the most prominent promoters of the Democratic line recently has been a Republican who Biden wants Americans to consider representative of the party. “I feel sad about where my party is, “ Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney said in an interview last month. “I feel sad about the way that too many of my colleagues have responded to what I think is a great moral test and challenge of our time – a great moment to determine whether or not people are going to stand up on behalf of the democracy, on behalf of our republic.”
But while thousands of Democrats switched parties to back her against Harriet Hageman, a Trump-endorsed candidate and former Trump critic who’s supported his election claims, Cheney was handily defeated in her primary by more than 30 points — more proof, as though we really needed it, that Trumpism is the Republican Party’s mainstream. In suggesting otherwise, Biden intends to send the American people a partially defensible message — that support for democracy and the rule of law are principles that should transcend our political affiliations. And they should. But democracy and the rule of law aren’t just abstract ideals — they’re the means by which we solve our material problems.
Republican efforts to usurp and delegitimize the electoral process should trouble us not just because they’re unfair and destabilizing, but because they advance the interests of the wealthy and powerful, who benefit from the conservative policy agenda. By attacking our elections and the right to vote, conservatives hope to rob us of opportunities to shore up and empower working class Americans on issues from health care to labor rights. And this is the point Democrats should emphasize — especially given that the pivotal constituencies in the electorate, swing and Trump-curious voters, are clearly ambivalent about, or willing to overlook, Republican violations of democratic norms.
It’s encouraging that Biden himself seems to understand this on some level. In his speech, Biden said that Trump’s supporters in the Republican party “spread fear and lies […] told for profit and power.” Later, he added that the “soul of America” is defined by egalitarian principles — “that all deserve justice and a shot at lives of prosperity and consequence,” he said, “and that democracy must be defended, for democracy makes all these things possible.” This passage echoed remarks he’d made during the signing of the IRA, which he touted as an example of what can get done when democracy works as it should. “It’s about delivering progress and prosperity to American families,” he said of the bill. “It’s about showing the American people that democracy still works in America — notwithstanding all the talk of its demise — not just for the privileged few, but for all of us.”
Of course, the process of getting to the IRA colorfully illustrated some of the ways democracy isn’t really working in America. Thanks to the power afforded to one very stubborn man from West Virginia in the Senate, popular policies like paid leave and more expansive climate measures were left on the chopping block. And the anticipated emissions reductions in the IRA will, like the long-troubled Medicaid expansion component of the Affordable Care Act, depend largely on the cooperation of state governments that are controlled by Republicans across much of the country and are working to disenfranchise Democratic voters.
Components of the For the People Act — now ancient history politically speaking — would have gone some way towards evening out the already-skewed playing field in the states and combatting Republican voter suppression efforts. Its failure is one of the signal disappointments of this Congress. And Democrats will only get another crack at it, in another majority, if they manage to convince voters that the fight for democracy is, in fact, a partisan and material struggle — a fight against a party that cannot be redeemed and is animated in its attacks on our norms and elections by more than just loyalty to Donald Trump.
Liz Cheney, heralded now as a profile in courage, should be presented by Democrats as an object lesson here. It genuinely matters that she backed Trump with her votes over 90% of the time over the course of her tenure in the House, including her opposition to Trump’s first impeachment. It was doubtless as obvious to her as it was to most Americans that Trump was dangerous, and it can’t have been much of a surprise that a man who lied about voter fraud in an election he had won in 2016 went on to assail the democratic process after his loss. But she stood with him — willing to indulge his abuses of power up until, almost literally, the last minute — because he was implementing policies she supports.
Cheney’s turn against Trump was less an indictment of his character than a vote of no confidence, after his loss, in his remaining utility to the party. And while few Republicans have been as bold in repudiating him, there’s palpable interest among the right’s powers that be in potential successors like Ron DeSantis, who’s winning plaudits from high-profile Trump critics like The Atlantic’s David Frum even as he echoes Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric and conspiracy theories from his perch in Florida. The simple truth is that most of the Republicans and conservatives Biden prefers still place protecting the power of capital well above protecting democracy and the rule of law on their list of concerns.
That’s not an argument that will bring Americans together. But realistically, nothing will. And politics is, at the end of the day, about presenting voters with clear choices and stakes. The Democrats have a powerful case to make: return them to power and they’ll do what they can to safeguard democracy from a Republican party fully and irretrievably controlled by bosses and billionaires intent on dominating ordinary Americans. That message might not work magic in time for the midterms. But it’s worth a shot.
Osita Nwanevu is a Guardian US columnist