03:38 - Source: CNN
Progressive Democrats project optimism after White House meeting with President Biden

Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell (@LincolnMitchell) teaches in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His most recent book is “The Giants and Their City: Major League Baseball in San Francisco, 1976-1992.” (Kent State University Press, 2020) The opinions expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

We are frequently told that the key to the Democrats’ chances in the 2022 midterm elections is for President Joe Biden’s administration and the Democratic majority in Congress to deliver meaningful legislation for the American people.

Lincoln Mitchell

There are many good reasons for Biden and the Democrats to pass the spending bills currently being discussed in Congress. Expanding social and physical infrastructure is what many Democratic candidates said they would do. For example, candidate Biden promised “to imagine and build a new American economy for our families and the next generation … where every American enjoys a fair return for their work and an equal chance to get ahead. An economy more vibrant and more powerful precisely because everybody will be cut in on the deal.”

The Party’s platform included similar language, saying Democrats are committed “to forging a new social and economic contract with the American people” that affirms housing as a right, raises wages and “supports working families and the middle class by securing equal pay for women and paid family leave for all.”

It is probably what their voters want and it may well be the right thing to do for America. There is also something intuitively appealing about the argument that delivering on campaign promises leads to victory for the president’s party. It is consistent with common sense as well as with a fundamental idea of democracy, that voters reward parties for keeping promises and crafting good policy and punish them for failing to do that.

The idea that delivering on policy promises is the key to victory in the midterms also happens to be wrong – or at least not supported by any evidence from the last half century or so. As a motivator for Democrats to act, the idea that delivering major policy accomplishments will pave the road to electoral success may be a good approach, but as political analysis it runs counter to history.

Recent decades are filled with examples of a new administration passing major legislation only to lose seats in the midterm election. After being elected in 1964 in a landslide with huge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed a battery of policies in 1965 that included the Voting Rights Act, the creation of Medicare and Medicaid and a number of other Great Society programs. The reward for the Democrats was the loss of 47 seats in the House of Representatives and three seats in the Senate in the 1966 midterm elections. For good measure, Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey was defeated in the 1968 presidential election.

A few years later, in 1981 President Ronald Reagan delivered on a campaign promise and passed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which was the core of his economic agenda and his campaign platform from his 1980 election. Reagan’s Republican Party then went on to pick up one Senate seat but lost 26 House seats in the 1982 midterms. In more recent years President Donald Trump passed major tax cuts, significant deregulation and two Supreme Court justices while President Barack Obama delivered the Affordable Care Act early in his first term. Both Trump and Obama saw their party drubbed in their first midterm election.

The pattern of the president’s party losing seats in the midterm is well-known and vexing for almost all presidents. Simply delivering on campaign promises has, at least since the New Deal era, not been enough to stop that trend. It is extremely unlikely that will change now in an era of a deeply polarized electorate, highly partisan media and a relative paucity of undecided voters.

There are several reasons for this. First, it takes a while for major policies to be felt by voters. For example, the Affordable Care Act was passed in spring of 2010, so voters were not experiencing the benefits, or downsides, of that in time for it to make a major impact on the election. In today’s context that means that even if Biden were able to pass both pieces of his Build Back Better program – the hard and soft infrastructure – the impact would not be felt right away. Groundbreakings on a few infrastructure projects or the awareness that, for example, new climate legislation or expanded Medicare that would include dental coverage was coming soon would be unlikely to sway too many voters in 2022.

Second, American politics no longer work, if it ever did, on a simple principle of major policy accomplishments being rewarded. Even when presidents are reelected, it is more frequently due to a perception that things are going well rather than any great enthusiasm for their policies, because voters care more about outcomes than inputs. In other words, the state of the economy is more important to voters than what laws the president and his party did or did not pass.

Additionally, in our current highly polarized political context, we have seen over and over, particularly in the last year or so that external factors, whether the Covid-19 pandemic, an impeachment hearing, the Mueller Report or even the January 6 insurrection have simply pushed people back into their political corners.

For example, the polls in late March of 2020 showed Biden, shortly after wrapping up the Democratic nomination, about nine points ahead of then-President Trump, but over the next months when the pandemic was rampant and huge protests roiled American cities after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, the numbers did not change much and the final pre-election polls showed Biden leading by about eight points. If those events have not significantly moved voters, why would we expect a piece of legislation or two, even major ones, to be any different?

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    Despite this, the Biden administration needs to accomplish something before the midterms. While it is not true that delivering legislation is the secret to success in the midterms, it is almost certainly true that it is better for the Democrats to have something to show for their two years in the majority when they go before the voters next November than to have done nothing with their majorities.

    Supporters of Biden’s legislative agenda should defend their position on the substance of his policies, not on the Pollyannish opinion that passing major new laws is the secret recipe for electoral success in the midterm elections. As Presidents Johnson, Reagan, Obama and Trump all learned, American politics is not that simple.