Electoral follies, American style

US readies for a brace of elections while mounting critical issues face the Biden administration

US readies for a brace of elections while mounting critical issues face the Biden administration
US President Joe Biden. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Jim Lo Scalzo)

While South Africans are focused on their own electoral agonies, there are off-year elections in the US a day later that may well foretell the fate of the Biden presidency.

While South Africans might be deeply enthralled (or disgusted) by their local government elections on 1 November; stories about the wildly improbable trafficking of newborn babies secretly spirited to Europe; the reluctance of a sports hero to “take a knee”, or even the ongoing saga of the imminent collapse of the national power grid — there are other elections taking place elsewhere. And one of those happens to be in the United States. That election comes along just one day after South Africa’s own version of democracy. 

This is an off-year election in America because it is neither a once-every-four-years general election including the presidency, nor one of those mid-term elections where the presidency is not up for grabs, but there are votes for the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and numerous governors and state legislator positions. This year, the results are being watched as harbingers for next year’s mid-term election — and then, also, for what it may well mean for the 2024 election when the presidency is again up for grabs. 

Because this is the America of 2021, the upcoming election remains inextricably tangled up with the acrid residue of Trumpian madness as well as what has now blossomed in Congress into an intra-Democratic Party squabble over much of the Biden economic agenda. Of course, the penumbra of such goings-on then cycles back to influence how successful Democratic candidates may be in this upcoming election and the succeeding ones of 2022 and 2024.

It’s complex, so let’s take these things step by step. The most-watched election now is the gubernatorial race in Virginia between Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin. McAuliffe had previously served as governor (succeeded by another Democrat, Ralph Northam) but because of a quirk in Virginia law, governors there can only serve one term — although they can be elected again to another, non-consecutive term. McAuliffe has, along the way, emerged as one of the most successful Democratic Party fundraisers of the contemporary era — relied upon by presidential candidates and many others to help raise the cash needed to run a credible campaign. 

Youngkin, meanwhile, is in his first attempt at elected office and while he has been avoiding the direct embrace of Donald Trump (or have him campaign directly for Youngkin), the candidate’s campaign rhetoric has taken on an amazing similarity to many of the most appalling, fraudulent, repellent Trumpisms. He has also added a potent bit about parents’ rights over their children’s education. 

Youngkin has thus aligned himself with increasingly venomous attacks on the insidiousness of critical race theory being “crammed down the throats of gullible children” and the rights of parents to demand a direct say over what is taught in classrooms across the state. This serves, he hopes, as a niche issue that will expand to be a wedge one as a way to win the race.

McAuliffe, meanwhile, has been pointing to successful efforts by the state’s run of Democratic governors in improving the state’s economy, education and quality of life, and swatting away the mistruths or worse from Youngkin. He is depending on Virginians’ increasingly Democratic Party support that has emerged over the past 30 years.

For nearly a half century after the passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the state’s more conservative white population (still then in the majority) shifted decisively away from supporting conservative, generally segregationist Democrats and towards the siren calls of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy that was virtually a racialised formula for victory across the South, and thus two presidential wins. 

But, over the past several decades, as the state shifted towards an increasingly politically active black population in its cities like Richmond and Norfolk-Hampton Roads, together with the growing out-of-state population moving into the northern Virginia suburbs across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital (and the booming hi-tech and IT industries), Virginia has shifted from red to purple, to increasingly blue in voter registration. Thus McAuliffe and his campaign have been counting on that demographic truth to allow him to outpace his competitor.

As the gubernatorial race in Virginia has tightened, however, and worried victory might actually slip away from McAuliffe, Democrats have been bringing in their certified crowd-pleasers to campaign for McAuliffe, such as former President Barack Obama and former candidate for the Georgia governorship, Stacey Abrams. Such late-in-the-campaign barnstorming has less to do with reinforcing understanding of the candidate’s positions and much more with motivating Democratic voters to show up on 2 November. 

This is largely because in off-year elections, the key to victory is usually turnout — getting “your people” to show up and vote, rather than simply replying to survey takers about who they support. Of course, on a national basis, Republican administrations in a number of states like Georgia and Texas have been busy passing laws that effectively will serve to suppress voting by traditionally Democratic voters — and especially minority populations.

Republicans have tried to couch those efforts in the language of election security — and the big lie of stolen 2020 election — but that depiction wears thin the moment the speeches of supporters of those efforts are held up to the light. Virginia is also electing all 100 members of the lower house of its state legislature and it is here too where anxieties about the party’s future in Virginia are further revealed. 

If Democrats lose a majority in the Virginia legislature, as well as the governorship, such defeats will be read as a danger zone signpost for 2022 nationally. Further, in Virginia, the redrawing of congressional districts in the state in accordance with the apportionment from the 2020 census (generally each state’s legislature’s prerogative) could shift towards re-delineating more Republican-leaning districts via a judicious application of the art of gerrymandering. Given the precarious Democratic majority in Congress, such an outcome will keep Democratic Party strategists up nights. 

There are other races besides those in Virginia, including a vacant congressional district in Texas, the mayor’s race in New York City and the governorship in New Jersey. For the New York City mayor’s race, given the vast disparity of Democrats over Republicans in the city, Brooklyn Borough President (and retired police captain) Eric Adams seems almost a certain bet over Republican Curtis Sliwa. For the latter contest, the incumbent, Democrat Phil Murphy, given the state’s relative economic growth and recovery from Covid pandemic lockdowns, is predicted as the very likely winner over Jack Ciatarelli, and in the latest polling, Murphy still leads by 11 percentage points.

Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, the messy, confusing process of dealing with the two halves of the Biden infrastructure proposals— or “Build Back Better” as it is often called — continues. Given that Biden can realistically count on no Republican support for either measure, despite the fact many elements of the overall plan are popular in the country, regardless of party affiliation, passage effectively requires the support of every Democrat. 

Several problems immediately come to the fore. Unlike parliamentary democracies, in the US, a presidential governing party cannot automatically anticipate all of its legislative members will support every measure backed by the president. As a result, two senators in particular, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema effectively have the reins over passage for these measures.

While Sinema appears to be resolutely opposed to new taxes to fund any of it, Manchin’s interests reside largely in protecting West Virginia’s increasingly vulnerable coal mining sector, something that would come under threat from the pollution abatement and clean energy provisions to move the economy away from coal for power plants. (Truthfully, too, the senator himself also has had financial interests in coal mining over the years.)   

The physical infrastructure bill will possibly be passed before the election (and then quickly signed into law) because it deals with the kinds of tangible stuff people can see — such as the desperately needed fixes to roads, bridges, harbours, airports, transport grids and the like.

However, the other bill, a now constantly changing, so-called “social infrastructure” plan contains a variety of “softer” measures such as an expansion of Medicare coverage to include dental and optometric care, free community college tuition, childcare support and parental leave, along with other measures objected to by various parts of the Democratic Party in Congress, either because they are deemed too expensive and inflationary, or because if they are trimmed back or eliminated in the final measure, their government will not be meeting the pledges of the incumbent president when he ran for office last year. 

Some centrist Democrats are nervous about the cost of these measures and so new approaches to increase the actual tax burden on the truly ultra rich to help pay for all these things are being examined — and debated — closely — and quickly, lest this social infrastructure measure founder without resolution. As the New York Times reported, “As they hunt for revenue to pay for their sprawling spending bill and try to unite a fractured caucus, Democrats are attempting to rewrite the United States tax code in a matter of days, proposing the kind of sweeping changes to how America taxes businesses and individuals that would normally take months or years to enact.

“The effort has effectively discarded trillions of dollars of carefully crafted tax increases that President Biden proposed on the campaign trail and that top Democrats have rolled out in Congress. Instead, lawmakers are throwing a slew of new proposals into the mix, including a tax on billionaires, hoping that they can pass muster both legally and within their own party.”

Meanwhile, some of the most leftward-leaning Democratic members of Congress are threatening darkly if their most favoured measures are left out of the final bill when it actually goes for a vote, they will not support the stripped-down measure, thereby making it impossible for it to pass because there will be no Republican support for it. None. For this latter point, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can take a bow.  

All of this is now taking place just as President Biden is scheduled to fly to Europe to join the COP26 global climate summit and the G20 in person (as opposed to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping who plan to participate virtually). The feeling among the administration is that it would be far better for the country’s standing if the president would be poised to sign both bills with all their various climate and environmental measures about to become law, rather than having them still in the meat grinder of congressional action. 

Meanwhile, the special committee of the House of Representatives tasked with dealing with the 6 January takeover of the Capitol Building, while the Senate was in the middle of certifying the election of Joe Biden as president, has issued subpoenas to more than a dozen former officials in the Trump administration, including Trump’s “Svengali”, Steve Bannon. Attorneys for these people have begun quiet negotiations over the nature of their participation in hearings. Bannon’s refusal to comply has led to a contempt of Congress resolution that is now in the hands of the justice department to determine how — or if — it will proceed to enforce the subpoena. 

As far as the ex-president himself is concerned, he continues to make mischief in his own inimitable manner. Beyond speeches with the usual eye-rolling red meat for his fans and those visits to his two golf club exile retreats in Florida and suburban New Jersey by Republican politicians eager to kiss his ring, there has also been an announcement that he will launch his own video presence in 2022.

If it actually happens, it will doubtlessly be filled with the usual invective against Democrats, wild charges of how the 2020 election was stolen by all the usual bad guys, and dark insinuations of foreign interference against him. Oh, and it will become the prime vehicle for campaigning for favoured candidates in 2022 and as a launching pad for his own miraculous return from the politically dead to reclaim the Republican nomination for president yet again. Recall that was, at least in his telling and retelling, a prize that had been stolen out from under his nose by all those dark forces massed in the shadows.

For Democratic strategists looking ahead to the electoral maps of 2022 and 2024, even if they gain victories in the Virginia and New Jersey governors’ races this year, there are growing concerns that there is a gaping mismatch between their most favoured public policy proposals and the views of those all-important independent voters who are the difference between winning and losing. 

Two highly regarded pollsters, Joel Benenson, a Democrat, and Republican Neil Newhouse have carried out research that offers warnings to Democrats that they may be heading into the 2022 midterm elections in a way echoing Barack Obama’s first two years in office — with decisions that yielded big losses in the 2010 midterms and that cost the Democrats their majority in the lower house.

In essence, the argument goes, so much political energy was spent on securing passage of Obamacare that voters essentially moved on and failed to reward the party for those efforts.  Biden’s agenda now runs the risk of having evolved into another one of those process struggles that will leave voters cold.  

As the Washington Post reported it, “At the heart of the Benenson-Newhouse research is something Democrats worried about a dozen years ago, when those messy negotiations took up so much bandwidth yet were also out of sync with what many swing voters prioritized. In late 2009 and early 2010, with unemployment hovering around 10 percent, key swing voters cared most about jobs and not expanding access to health insurance. Today’s voters appear to be most concerned about the ongoing global pandemic and are not deeply invested in the haggling over proposals such as expanding Medicare coverage to include dental, hearing and vision benefits.

“ ‘The conversation in Washington doesn’t match the conversation that’s happening around the country,’ Newhouse said… In their survey of more than 2,600 likely voters, the pollsters asked respondents to cite their three most important issues. Democratic voters chose climate change, pandemic recovery and ‘raising taxes on the rich’ as their most important issues, closely followed by ‘health insurance coverage/costs’.

“And now Democrats in Washington are crafting a multi-trillion-dollar agenda that focuses on expanding access to health care, battling climate change and providing better child care, all financed by taxing the wealthy. But that menu does not quite match the interests of independent voters, who chose ‘economy/inflation/jobs’ as their top concern, with ‘immigration and border security’ close behind and then ‘Covid-19 pandemic recovery.’ ” [Italics added] Losing the independents could well punish Democrats heavily in 2022.

All of these concerns should be paramount for the US president as he jets off to Europe, but there is also the arguably even more important question of the increasingly troublesome relationship with China in all its many manifestations, as well as perennials such as the Middle East, European unity or disunity, and a prickly relationship with Russia. 

At least for the president, he can take a breath over having ended America’s Afghanistan misadventure, even if the agonies of that unhappy nation continue. DM


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