On NBC’s Meet the Press in early April, Hillary Clinton expressed frustration with polls showing that Americans are turning against President Biden and the Democrats as the midterm elections approach. “I’m not quite sure what the disconnect is between the accomplishments of the administration and this Congress and the understanding of what’s been done and the impact it will have on the American public,” griped the party’s 2016 presidential nominee, adding: “Democrats in office and out need to be doing a better job of making the case.”
Former president Barack Obama echoed that message two days later. After an April 5 visit to the White House, he responded to a reporter’s question about how Democrats should approach the midterms by declaring, “We got a story to tell, just got to tell it.”
That’s a common strategy proposal from centrist Democrats these days, as their party careens into what’s expected to be a brutal election cycle. There’s just one problem: It doesn’t work. The last two Democratic administrations tried the “you don’t know how good you’ve got it” line and got trounced.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton declared, “We have made an important beginning with a comprehensive economic strategy designed to empower American workers to compete and win in the 21st century.” He then proceeded to tick off what his team saw as major accomplishments: passing free trade agreements, “reinventing government” by slashing federal employment, and tackling the deficit with what felt a lot like an austerity agenda. Voters balked. Republicans took the House for the first time since 1952, flipped the Senate, and gained 10 governorships.
Democrats failed to take back Congress in 1996 and 1998, and in 2000 they lost the presidency. The party renewed its claim on power in 2008, thanks to Barack Obama’s “Yes, We Can!” appeal and voter fury over the Great Recession. In 2010, Obama and his fellow Democrats, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hit the midterm campaign trail, touting their success in “moving forward…not backward” on health care and financial reform. Voters rolled their eyes and gave control of the House and key governorships to the Republicans, who had embraced the Tea Party movement’s savagely dishonest attacks on the nation’s first Black president. Four years later, after another uninspired Democratic midterm campaign, the Republicans took the Senate, disempowering Obama so completely that he couldn’t get a hearing for his final Supreme Court nominee.
No doubt, the Biden administration has brag-worthy accomplishments: advancing the American Rescue Act, managing the Covid-19 vaccination program, and presiding over red-hot jobs growth. But economic heat and corporate price gouging have sparked the worst inflation in four decades, and polls show that 72 percent of Americans think the country is “on the wrong track.” There’s also the inconvenient truth that Democrats haven’t kept big promises. The Senate parliamentarian blocked a $15 minimum wage, and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin upended the Build Back Better agenda and thwarted efforts to address the climate crisis. Congress allowed the groundbreaking child tax credit to expire. And Covid case counts are rising.
Despite what Clinton and Obama say, Biden’s current list of accomplishments won’t cut it. Biden should reject the cautious counsel of corporate-friendly Democrats like Mark Penn and be bolder: issuing executive orders to do popular things like canceling federally held student loan debt and rallying congressional support for plans to tax the rich and tackle price gouging. Above all, the Democrats must draw stark contrasts with Republicans.
A campaign telling voters they’re wrong to feel frustrated will fail. A campaign warning voters about the clear threat a GOP takeover would pose to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, abortion rights, worker rights, and the planet just might avert a repeat of the 1994 and 2010 midterm debacles.
The Democratic message should be blunt: If we lose Congress, Republicans will make Biden the lamest lame-duck president in history. And if we lose the statehouses, Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” will be codified just in time to tip the 2024 presidential election to Trump or someone worse. Instead of a feel-good “touting accomplishments” campaign, Democrats should rip into the GOP with a warning that America’s future is at stake. Because it is.