Inflation is at record highs. Roe v. Wade is in limbo. Voting rights are under attack. The filibuster is intact. Student debt isn’t canceled. Climate change is unaddressed. And the Build Back Better Act—the cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s agenda—looks doomed.
And now, despite those failures, Democrats have to sell their unified control of Washington as a success.
Democrats have certainly achieved some policy wins this year. They passed a bipartisan infrastructure deal, providing $1 trillion toward critical needs in the United States, and they were able to pass another COVID response bill that implemented a beefed up Child Tax Credit, a lifeline to low- and middle-income families.
But the Child Tax Credit expires in days, and an infrastructure bill that both Democrats and Republicans wanted isn’t exactly the transformative change Democrats believed they’d see while their party controls the House, Senate and White House.
Headed into the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats were already broadly projected to lose the House—and their prospects in the Senate aren’t much rosier. Now, after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) put the Build Back Better Act in serious doubt, Democrats have to figure out how to campaign for their jobs without action on climate change, or tax policy, or housing money, or a $35 cap on monthly insulin expenses.
“A midterms with Build Back Better is much better for Democrats than a midterms without Build Back Better,” Data For Progress co-founder Sean McElwee told The Daily Beast. McElwee insisted media coverage of Democrats would be particularly negative headed into midterms if Build Back Better isn’t passed, with a potential narrative that “we fucked this up.”
“Whereas, I think if you pass Build Back Better, you have a very positive media environment. Democrats get things done. Biden delivers on his campaign promises. Progressives are happy, moderates are happy. We’re all going in this together,” McElwee said.
Lanae Erickson, the senior vice president of policy at Third Way, a centrist Democrat think tank, said in an interview that she believes Democrats should stick to a strategy and message of passing Build Back Better before the midterms.
“If Democrats go into the midterms having not been able to deliver something that’s called ‘Build Back Better,’ I think we’re toast,” she said.
Erickson added that, while she believes the infrastructure deal and the American Rescue Plan were significant policy accomplishments, they won’t be sufficient in turning out voters.
“The American Rescue Plan will have been almost two years ago by the time we get to the ballot box, and people have very short memories,” Erickson said.
Another Democratic operative, granted anonymity to speak freely, told The Daily Beast the main tenets of the infrastructure deal are simply “boring.”
“There’s no emotion to rebuilding transportation and highways,” they said.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) told The Daily Beast he wants to remind voters about the “big things” Democrats have accomplished, like the infrastructure bill and the COVID relief package, but he recognizes that the things the Democratic base is excited about are “stalling at the feet of Joe Manchin.”
Huffman further noted that even though Build Back Better is stalling in the Senate, it passed in the House, just like a number of other Democratic priorities this year, including codifying abortion rights, legalizing marijuana, and boosting voting rights. The problem is the Senate.
“You’re not going to get anywhere if you lose the House majority,” Huffman said, hoping voters would recognize that Kevin McCarthy becoming speaker would doom these agenda items even more.
Still, those are distinctions that may be above many voters. Erickson noted that voters don’t necessarily parse out blame to specific members—like Manchin or Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ); they generally seek accountability from their own.
“When frontline House members go back to their districts, they’re not going to say, ‘Sorry about Joe Manchin.’ Like, that’s not a good campaign slogan,” she said.
Camille Rivera, partner at the progressive communications firm New Deal Strategies, also urged The Daily Beast to keep in mind how basic voter opinions can be. “Regular folks barely know who their Congress person is,” she said.
“[Democrats and Independents] want to know that people are being taken care of,” Rivera said. “But right now, they don’t have confidence in the Democratic Party to do that, and so they need to feel excitement that somebody is fighting for them.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) told reporters this week there was “no question” that failing to pass Build Back Better would dampen Democratic turnout in 2022. But she also expects a coordinated campaign among Democrats—including both moderates and progressives—to tout their already existent accomplishments.
“The president said to me when he called me last Thursday that they were working on making sure we have a really big education campaign about exactly what we’ve accomplished,” she said.
Jayapal added that the CPC was working on a list of legislation it would want to push forward with a Democratic majority, further trying to draw a contrast with GOP priorities. And the CPC released a statement on Wednesday insisting President Joe Biden take executive action on a number of items that would have been addressed in Build Back Better.
“The legislative approach, while essential, has no certainty of timing or results—and we simply cannot wait to deliver tangible relief to people that they can feel and will make a difference in their lives and livelihoods,” Jayapal wrote.
Meanwhile, Republicans are relishing the prospect of Democrats not producing any more significant legislative wins.
“Vulnerable Democrats who supported this politically toxic bill and walked the plank for Nancy Pelosi have absolutely nothing to show for it,” Michael McAdams, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement. “That’s a big problem for their reelection efforts.”
Republican voters, by and large, have better turnout during election years, particularly in midterm election years. The GOP also tends to score better with voters on issues like jobs and the economy, which are front of mind for folks concerned about the rising costs of goods and inflation. And the party not in power historically makes gains during midterms too.
All of that points to Republicans taking control of the House and giving Democrats a run for the money in the Senate during the 2022 elections.
Huffman, however, believes the behavior of the Republican Party over the last year could outweigh some policy issues for Democrats. An investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection is still ongoing, implicating a number of Republican figures and re-upping flashbacks to the deadly riots.
The GOP’s outlandish COVID rhetoric could also come front-and-center amid the Omicron variant, which is ripping through America.
“Who do you trust to deal with this?” Huffman said.
Using disdain for Republicans was a frequent—and in many ways successful—strategy for Democrats in 2018 and 2020. But in those days, they had President Donald Trump to actively campaign against.
2022 doesn’t afford that same message.
“We can’t think that running on the 2020 playbook is going to have any success in 2022. We are now the party in power, we ran on things that are incredibly popular… If we don’t deliver on them, we’re going to be in trouble,” the Democratic operative remarked.
Yet another problem for Democrats is that many voters still don’t know what policies are in the Build Back Better Act; they just know that Democrats have failed to pass it.
In the words of the Democratic operative: “They just know we can’t get shit done.”