For Democrats, prospect of 2022 election disaster looms

Manchin killing Build Back Better is the latest blow to Democrat hopes of retaining majorities after midterms.

Updated: December 20, 2021 - 11:27pm

As the calendar turns to 2022, Democrats are looking to the midterm elections with growing apprehension amid a plethora of unfavorable developments.

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's announcement Sunday that he won't support President Biden's signature legislation marks the latest blow to Democrats' fading hopes of retaining their congressional majorities after the midterms.

"I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation," Manchin said of the Build Back Better Act. "I just can't. I've tried everything humanely possible. I can't get there ... This is a no on this legislation."

The roughly $2 trillion bill, backed by Biden and most Democrats in Congress, would be the largest expansion of the social safety net in decades.

Democrats were hoping to get the legislation passed by Christmas to show voters they're delivering for the American people and living up to their promises. But Manchin's resolute "no" dashed their hopes of creating such a narrative, placing a massive roadblock in the way of Biden's domestic agenda and Democrats' top legislative priority.

Manchin's actions also shined a light on the discord within Democratic ranks. The White House castigated Manchin for his decision, while progressives blamed him and fellow moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) for delaying Build Back Better by "acting like Republicans."

However, "any effort to lay the blame for inaction squarely on Manchin's shoulders forgets the full story of the last 11 months," Thomas Gift, director of the Centre on U.S. Politics at University College London, told Newsweek. "In holding the infrastructure bill hostage, it was progressives who delayed, for an extended period, the signature plank of Biden's domestic agenda. For them to turn around now and scapegoat Manchin for dragging his feet just isn't persuasive."

House progressives had wanted to tie the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan to Build Back Better. For months, they refused to back the former unless both bills were approved at the same time.

Now, Democrats' bold agenda is stalled despite them controlling the House, Senate, and White House — a fact that won't be lost on voters already concerned about a range of other issues.

Chief among those issues is soaring inflation, about which Manchin expressed deep concern on Sunday.

"It's not transitory; it's real," Manchin said. "It's harming every West Virginian. The cost of gasoline, the cost of groceries, the cost of utility bills — all these things are hitting at every aspect of life."

The Labor Department reported earlier this month that consumer prices rose by 6.8% in November over the previous year, marking the highest annual inflation rate since June 1982.

Recent polling shows the American people overwhelmingly disapprove of Biden's handling of inflation and of the economy more broadly. Most voters say they're concerned about the economy now and moving forward.

A large majority of voters also disapprove of Biden's handling of crime and immigration, according to recent polls. And while a slim majority favor his approach to the coronavirus pandemic, that figure has hit an all-time low. One reason for the steep drop might be the wave of court rulings against his vaccine mandates, along with a number of other recent legal defeats in which federal judges have found Biden's policies violate the Constitution.

This week, Biden's overall approval rating hit its lowest point, 41%, according to new PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, which showed support for the president among independents plummeted. His average approval ratings are similarly stuck in the low 40s.

Historically, a president's party loses more seats in midterm elections when the president is unpopular, which is causing concern among Democrats nationwide.

Many Democrats seem to see the writing on the wall, openly accepting they'll lose in November — the only question is by how much.

"I would hope [the Republican margin in the House] is less than 20," Kentucky Democratic Party chair Colmon Elridge told Politico.

"I'm scared," added Peg Schaffer, vice chair of the Democratic Party in New Jersey, where Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy won reelection this year by a much closer margin than expected.

Election forecasts are showing the Democratic Party losing its edge in congressional races as generic ballot tests pitting unnamed candidates against each other look promising for Republicans. 

If the 2022 midterms didn't already look bleak enough for Democrats, a number of them are not running for reelection this term — some in competitive districts which Republicans may flip in November.

Rep. Alen Lowenthal (D-Calif.) became the latest House Democrat to announce his retirement at the end of this term, bringing the total number who are retiring or seeking other office to 20. Only 12 House Republicans have so far announced they're not running for reelection.

More importantly, Democrats are the ones mainly leaving crucial swing districts. According to FiveThirtyEight, "10 Democrats are abandoning seats that are less than 10 points more Democratic than the country as a whole, while only one Republican is exiting a seat that's less than 10 points more Republican."