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Faced with Midterm Losses, Democrats Appear to Have Sights Set on Getting What They Want Via Another Method

Al Drago, Pool via AP

It's been a busy weekend for Democrats. Although they were met with a delay and even fears that their retreat is "cursed," House Democrats made left Thursday night for their winter retreat in Philadelphia. Reports about the retreat inevitably discussed the likely midterm losses for Democrats come the November elections. 

A Friday report from Annie Karni with The New York Times noted that "Bracing for Losses, Democrats Look to Biden for a Reset."

The way in which President Joe Biden is quoted presents a sobering reality:

One year to the day after the enactment of Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan — a law that remains broadly popular even if the president, at the moment, is not — Democrats are toiling to retool their message and refocus their agenda. They are worried that the accomplishments they helped deliver to Mr. Biden are being drowned out by concern over the rising price of gas and a focus on their legislative failures.

And they are looking to the president, who addressed them at the retreat on Friday, to help them reframe the conversation.

“This may be the most important off-year election in modern history,” Mr. Biden told lawmakers on Friday afternoon. If Democrats lose their majorities in the House and the Senate, he said, “the only thing I’ll have then is a veto pen.” 

The president outlined his administration’s achievements over the past year, noting that few pieces of legislation have had the impact of the stimulus plan he proposed during his first month in office. He criticized Republicans for wrongly blaming him for gas prices.

But it was not clear from his remarks how Mr. Biden planned to help his party refashion its message before November.

One suggestion came from Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as well as Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the House Majority Whip who was key to helping Biden win the Democratic nomination. 

It appears to be through executive action. "Instead, after a year of supporting his agenda, House Democrats have pivoted to beseeching Mr. Biden to act on his own through executive actions to address the outstanding issues they care about before they face voters in November," Karni wrote.

Jayapal has policy items in mind such as capping the price of insulin, increase the overtime threshold for wages, and fix what Karni describes as "the so-called family glitch in the Affordable Care Act, which can make it impossible for some workers with modest incomes to afford health insurance."

Clyburn, however, appears to want Biden to use executive action for voting legislation, which Democrats purport to be about protecting voting rights and democracy, but in reality would lead to a federal takeover of elections.

The congressman is also quoted in Mike Lillis' Friday night reporting for The Hill:

If legislative avenues become clogged, Democrats also used this week's retreat to hone a strategy for making policy gains through Biden's executive powers. Indeed, the heads of the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and Jayapal all said they're readying a list of priorities they want the White House to move unilaterally. The list touches on issues such as diverse as police reform, immigration and voting rights protections. It is, they're ready to remind Biden, a powerful tool with a great deal of precedent.

"Slaves were freed in 1863 by executive order," said Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat. "So executive orders do have power."

The White House tried to rally support for such voting bills earlier this year. In January, Biden traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, where in a fiery speech he accused those who didn't support such legislation of being in line with racists and segregationists such as Jefferson David, George Wallace, and Bill Connor, though he tried to claim otherwise.

Such a tactic didn't work. The legislation failed to overcome the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, and when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) tried to nuke the filibuster as a result, he still failed. Although Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) voted for voting legislation, they were not willing to let it pass at the expense of changing the filibuster, and so voted against such a move. 

Despite such an almost certain reality that their party will face failures in the midterms, key Democrats still conduct themselves as if they have much of a fighting chance, and it's not just Biden, who made particularly tone-deaf remarks on Thursday night. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), has the task of defending a particular narrow House majority, where they have just a five-seat advantage over Republicans. 

Maloney is quoted in Lillis' reporting as having a more positive outlook than fits the situation:

"We come to Philadelphia with a record of results and a plan for the future," Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), the head of the Democrats' campaign arm, told reporters Friday morning.

"We have incumbents and candidates that can win in tough districts," he continued. "And our argument will be that if you give us another two years, we'll keep working for you and your family. The other side will keep working for themselves."


Yet Maloney said flatly that the party's election chances are not hanging on their ability to score another big legislative victory along the lines of the Build Back Better Act. Suggesting some Democrats come across as too "preachy," he advised members to establish a rapport with voters that earns their trust. 

"We need to talk like real people," he said. "If you go home for Thanksgiving, and your brothers think you sound like a jerk, what your grade point average was doesn't matter to them. You have to show up and be a human being in relationship to your voters."

From his official Twitter account, Rep. Maloney tweeted out an article by Paul Kane for The Washington Post, "Democratic campaign chair Sean Patrick Maloney faces toughest job in politics." The congressman, however, noted it should read "best job."

Kane's piece in closing quoted Maloney as saying "They like what we’re doing, but they’re not sure about us."

A POLITICO piece from Ally Mutnick on Thursday, mentioned that "House Democrats name top challengers in fight for majority." In the piece, DCCC Executive Director Tim Persico is quoted as saying "I think it's going to be mostly about defense," about their midterm strategy. "But, it's important to play offense," he also said.

Though Vice President Kamala Harris made some memorable comments during his Saturday afternoon address at the DNC winter meeting, she did not mention the November midterms. 

The president's party almost always loses seats during his first midterm election. In addition to the particularly narrow majorities, Democrats are fighting to defend, over 30 members have announced their retirements rather than risk losing their races. 

Daily polling shows that Biden is deeply underwater, as is the percentage of the country that thinks the country is on the right track.

According to FiveThirtyEight, last updated on Fridat morning, Biden is at a 42.7 percent approval rating and a 51.3 percent disapproval rating. Data from RealClearPolitics (RCP) from March 1-10 similarly has him at a 42.9 percent approval rating and 51.7 disapproval rating. RCP also shows that, using data from February 15-March 8, just 29.3 percent think the country is going in the right direction, while 62.4 percent say it's on the wrong track.

Further, despite Maloney's claims and hopes about his party, the American people don't seem to have such confidence in the president. According to a poll from The Economist/YouGov conducted February 26-March 1, with 1,500 registered voters, a plurality, at 34 percent responded "Not much" when asked "How much do you think Joe Biden cares about the needs and problems of people like you?"


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