Every Time Biden Defies Expectations, Trump’s Strength Weakens

Photograph Source: Lorie Shaull – CC BY 2.0

Democrats are understandably cock-a-hoop at the results so far of the midterm elections to Congress so far, which show them to have avoided the electoral massacre they had feared and the Republicans hoped for. Instead, they stand a better than even chance of holding onto the Senate while their probable loss of the House will be by a far lesser margin than many had predicted.

One result of the outcome of the midterms is that President Joe Biden will be more likely to stand for re-election in 2024 and former President Trump, who will soon announce if he will stand again for the presidency, has been weakened. Republican candidates who got his full and active support have generally fared poorly or failed to get a boost from his backing.

The final outcome of the midterms will take time to emerge, particularly in closely fought Senate races in Georgia, Nevada and Arizona.

The Democrats had hoped that the threat to abortion rights and to democracy itself from Trumpian Republican populists would be a vote winners and the election showed that this calculation was largely correct. The NBC exit poll shows that 27 per cent of voters said that abortion was the main issue for them and three quarters of these voted for Democratic candidates.

There were good reasons why the Republicans expected a “Red Wave” or “a Republican Tsunami” to engulf the Democrats. President Joe Biden looks frail, elderly and unable to get a grip on challenges facing America. Some 45 per cent of voters strongly disapprove and 10 per cent somewhat disapprove of the way he is handling his job. Inflation is high and is identified by 31 per cent of voters as their main concern, with some 20 per cent saying that it has caused them severe hardship and 59 per cent moderate hardship.

Yet the economy turned out not to be quite the killer issue that the Republicans had hoped for, perhaps because the economic news is not all bad. Prices may be steeply up in the shops and at the fuel pumps, but so too are job numbers and real wages.

Republicans benefit from a supposed crime wave, heavily publicised by Fox News and the Republican media. In reality, however, violent crime has declined sharply since the 1990s. From 1993 to 2021, the rate of violent victimisation declined from 79.8 to 16.5 victimisations per 1,000 persons aged 12 or older, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.

Yet from a Republican point of view a victory is still a victory, even if it is smaller than they might have wished for. Control of the House, even by a few seats, will enable them to hobble the Biden administration and launch inquiries into issues where they think the Democrats are vulnerable.

The failure of Republican candidates to do as well as former President Donald Trump might have hoped is combining with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s easy re-election by a 20 per cent margin to produce a new political landscape for Republicans. DeSantis is the most likely to succeed of any rival to Trump, supposing the former president decides to stand as the Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential election, something likely to provoke a Republican civil war to the advantage of the Democrats.

Simply not being roundly defeated will improve the morale of the Biden administration as once again Biden has defied low expectations that his age and fumbling performance would produce an election defeat. Keep in mind that the young and vigorous President Bill Clinton lost 54 seats, and with it control of the House in his first midterm election in 1994. President Barack Obama did even worse in the 2010 midterms when the Democrats lost seven seats in the Senate and 63 seats in the House.

The Democrats have escaped a similar disaster this year, despite historic precedents supplemented by Republican gerrymandering of electoral boundaries in their favour. But the Democrats cannot afford to be too pious about this because their inept attempt to gerrymander seats in New York state blew up in their faces and a fair redistribution ordered by the courts has cost them at least one seat. Republicans will hold post mortems about why their great victory never happened and who and what is to blame for it.

Clearly, the reversal of Roe v Wade by the Supreme Court this summer resonated with voters much as Democrats had hoped it would at the time of the court decision, though more recently they feared that the right to choose was being submerged as an issue by price inflation.

But in states where abortion rights were directly on the ballot like Kentucky and Michigan, and not just in culturally liberal California and Vermont, voters favoured the right to abortion. Republicans will now fear that the reversal of Roe V Wade will lead to a continuing haemorrhage of votes from them to the Democrats, a reversal of the previous direction when anti-abortion activists were more likely to go to the polls.

The rebuff to Trump may be not be an entirely unmixed blessing for Democrats because, as in 2020, as Republican presidential candidate he might prove to be the one opponent whom Biden could beat as he did in 2020. Trump has already begun to train his rhetorical guns on DeSantis, nicknaming him “DeSanctimonious” in the sort of personal attack which saw off many of his over-confident Republican rivals in 2016.

At that time, however, Democrats had an exaggerated idea of the benefits to them of Republican fratricide, failing to note the advantages to Trump of leading the television news every night. Trump may not have had the success he was after but the constituency loyal to him and his views is still vast with 35 per cent of voters interviewed for the exit poll this week accepting his view that Biden was unfairly elected in 2020.

One final point about the midterm elections – they are not over. Fights over the most closely fought contests will go on for weeks if not longer.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).