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History Has Some Bad News for Biden Democrats

Michael Barone on

As in the 1880s, we live in an era of polarized partisan parity, in which changes of opinion among independent voters can sweep election results. One year ago, Joe Biden was elected president with 51% of the popular vote. Now, with his job approval down to 42%, his party is in trouble.

That's obvious from Republican Glenn Youngkin's 51-49 victory for governor in Virginia, which Biden won by 10% in 2020, and Democrat Gov. Phil Murphy's reelection by only 51-49 in New Jersey, which had been +16% for Biden. It's obvious also that, barring an upward shift in public opinion, Democrats will surely lose their narrow House majority in the House and likely lose their current 50-50 parity in the Senate.

Historic precedents abound. Presidents' parties almost always lose House seats in midterm elections for structural reasons. Presidents' parties have gained House seats only three times in the past century (1934, 1998, 2002), all when incumbent presidents had unusually high job approval.

There are structural reasons for this. In an always diverse nation, presidents are only elected by amassing large coalitions with divergent views. Once in office, their actions and goals inevitably displease some previous supporters.

During midterms, members of the president's party are stuck with the president's record. That can hurt, even in governor's races in times of strong partisan polarization. The opposition party, in contrast, has choice of terrain.

One example is the Biden Democrats' proposal to increase the deductibility of state and local taxes. This is wildly popular -- politically essential, actually -- for some putatively moderate Democrats in high-tax, high-income places such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California.

 

But the issue can work for Republicans elsewhere because the lion's share of dollar savings goes to taxpayers earning $500,000 or more. That's a hard sell in places where almost nobody earns that much.

Another historic perspective: Three decades ago, Americans emerged from a long era (1952-92) in which they mostly elected Republican presidents and Democratic Congresses. That often resulted in widely accepted bipartisan legislation since neither party's politicians expected to have total control any time soon.

Since 1994, voters have become both increasingly partisan and more closely divided. So both parties' politicians have reason to shun bipartisan compromise and wait to win a trifecta: the White House and both houses of Congress. When they get one, they push for, and sometimes pass, sweeping legislation, then promptly lose their majorities.

This happened in 1994 after Democrats failed to pass Hillarycare and in 2010 after they passed Obamacare. It happened in 1966 after passage of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, when Republicans won the House popular vote outside the then-heavily Democratic South. If Biden's approval remains low, it will probably happen again in 2022.

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