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Six Months Left
Democrats are running out the clock on their federal trifecta
On January 3, 2023, the 118th United States Congress will be sworn into office. Odds are, it will be significantly more conservative than the one we have now.
You could have written that statement in November 2020 — it’s a law of American political science that the President’s party almost always loses seats in the midterms. You could have penciled it in last year, when Joe Biden’s approval numbers started to crater. But now, with election season kicking into full swing, it’s impossible for anyone not looking through a rose-tinted partisan lens to deny that the Democrats’ Congressional majorities are in serious jeopardy.
Last week, FiveThirtyEight released their first probabilistic forecasts for the upcoming midterms. Online betting markets like PredictIt also function as crowdsourced oddsmakers for electoral outcomes. There are reasonable critiques of how such numbers are calculated, validated and communicated (a subject for another day), but even taking the odds with a heavy grain of salt, the ability to distill myriad, often-contradictory political dynamics into concrete estimates of probability is a powerful thing.
Unfortunately, the forecast is pretty grim. As of this writing, each of FiveThirtyEight’s two primary versions of their model gives Democrats a 13% chance of holding the House of Representatives after the midterms. PredictIt’s implied odds are only slightly better, at around 15%. That means the GOP has a six-in-seven chance of taking the House in the next few months.
Things look somewhat better in the Senate, but that’s relative. While two of FiveThirtyEight’s three models actually have the Democrats slightly favored to keep the chamber, the one they say is most-accurate gives them just a 45% chance to maintain control. PredictIt’s markets are still more skeptical, putting the Democrats’ odds at around 38%.
Overall, FiveThirtyEight’s models say the Democrats have a 13% shot to maintain their federal trifecta (they also win the Senate in virtually every simulation in which they keep the House), whereas PredictIt has their odds at about 11%. But even that seemingly pessimistic prediction is probably too generous about their chances to actually wield power. As we have well learned, simply having Congressional majorities is not enough to enact a progressive agenda. If the Democrats keep the House, FiveThirtyEight foresees an 11% chance that it is by a single vote, and thus that — thanks to Nancy Pelosi and Jim Clyburn actively campaigning for an anti-choice colleague — supporting abortion rights could still be a minority position. And simply holding onto 50 seats in the Senate would mean Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema maintain their veto power within the caucus. FiveThirtyEight’s fanciest model gives them 20% odds of achieving at least 52 seats, while the PredictIt’s prices imply just an 11% chance for the Democrats to gain two or more seats.
But this essay isn’t about what happens when the 118th U.S. Congress takes its seats. It’s about what happens before that.
There are six months left between now and the end of the 117th Congress, in which the more-left of the two major American parties controls both chambers. Yet the Democrats have legislative senioritis. Faced with a series of national tragedies, judicial defeats, and constituent outrage, their main focus is just telling us to vote. And you can kind of see their point: Take out the lame-duck period after the election and the campaign flurry in the weeks before it, and there isn’t much time left for a party bereft of ideological leadership to devise and pass a bold agenda in the interim.
But there’s another way that the Democrats could think about this situation. The next six months represent a full quarter of a Congressional term. As impotent as the party currently seems, the odds of them increasing or even holding their present power at the federal level next year are quite poor. And given both Biden’s deep unpopularity and the increasing likelihood that Republicans will do whatever they can to retake the White House in 2024, the Democrats are unlikely to hold such a position again anytime soon. A decade passed between the end of their previous federal trifecta and their present one; the next such lag will probably be similar.
In other words, this is the best chance we’re likely to have to implement progressive reforms for a long time.
If any Democratic pundits are reading this, they will surely chide me for my naïveté: They don’t have the votes right now. It’s true that the party’s slim Congressional majorities mean they cannot pass legislation without virtually unanimous agreement, including from Manchin and Sinema. So if the party can’t agree on seemingly easy things like scrapping the procedural rule that inhibits them from governing and sending the full $2,000 checks they explicitly promised, we shouldn’t hold our breath for them to build consensus on Medicare for All or expanding the Supreme Court.
What somehow never comes up in such conversations is what these self-styled pragmatists’ plan is for things to get better. Why is it reasonable to pretend the Democrats are in good shape for November, but a pipe dream to think that a President whose selling point was his unique legislative skill could be twisting arms in the Senate cloakroom? Even if they again eke out narrow majorities, how do you trust the same party leaders who just culminated a yearslong failure to protect Roe to wield power more-effectively after the midterms? If there really is no hope for things to get better in the short- or even medium-term, why expend so much effort smugly Well-Actuallying people’s frustrations with a broken system?
“If not now, when?” sounds like a rhetorical question, but it’s one that should loom large over every day the Democratic Party stalls. Consider the ever-more-imminent threat of climate change. The multifaceted crises of American health care, including the pandemic that we are very much still in the midst of. The increasingly tenuously threaded social safety net. The tragically routine news of mass shootings. The skyrocketing costs of living, and especially housing. The unchecked power of conservative ideology on the Supreme Court. The widespread distrust — both manufactured and deserved — of our public institutions. The continued marginalizations of groups based on race, gender, sexuality, religion, and disability, and the incipient campaigns to roll back what protections they do have. The right-wing movement to undermine the very principles of representative democracy.
If you’re saying we can’t deal with any of this now, fine. But taking that thought to its logical conclusion in light of the current political climate, that almost certainly means our country will be incapable of addressing any of these crises for a long time. And that betrays a far deeper cynicism about the usefulness of representative democracy than questioning the virtue of Voting Blue No Matter Who.
The next six months should be a time for boldness. For bully pulpits and political pressure. For our elected leaders to actually do things instead of explaining why they can’t. For the party that holds a federal trifecta to deliver results for the country, not just fundraising emails. The dire outlook for the midterms means the Democrats should feel urgency to get things done now. Contrary to their current behavior, they’re not in the minority — yet.
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