Which political party is worse?
That’s the question voters will be grappling with this fall as they decide whether Democrats should continue to run Congress, or they’ve blown their chance and it’s time to give Republicans another shot.
President Biden and the Democrats who have thin majorities in Congress have to explain 8.6% inflation, gas prices of nearly $5 per gallon, the “defund the police” fiasco and intraparty bickering that’s the equivalent of separate marital bedrooms. The worst inflation in 40 years has pushed Biden’s approval rating to dismal levels and given Republicans a good chance to take control of Congress in November.
And yet. Republicans have finally caught the car they’ve been chasing for decades, with the Supreme Court’s overturning of the nationwide abortion protections provided in the Roe v. Wade decision from 1973. It’s not just that. The court, which now leans 6-3 conservative thanks to three Donald Trump appointees, also just made guns easier to carry and upheld a football coach’s right to force students at a public high school to pray with him during games. On the first two issues, the Republican-dominated court is badly out of step with public opinion, while the third decision seems to upend America’s traditional separation of church and state.
Then there are the new revelations of what is probably criminal behavior in and out of government by Republicans trying to help President Trump overturn the legitimate elections results in 2020, which led to the Jan. 6, 2021 riots at the U.S. Capitol. The Congressional committee investigating that national disgrace has found, among other things, that Trump probably knew he lost and pursued his fraudulent scheme anyway, with help from toadies in the White House, Congress and state governments who begged him for preemptive pardons, as if they knew they were committing crimes. Some of these schemers are now plotting at the state and local levels to attempt another coup in the future, and this time, win.
The Republicans are corrupt. The Democrats are inept. Since it’s arguably better to be feckless than evil, is there any way Democrats can turn Republican extremism to their advantage?
It’s possible, but it will probably take one thing that's very tough for Biden and his fellow Democrats to do: Get U.S. gas prices below $4 a gallon, on average. Gas prices have an outsized effect on consumer psyches, even though Americans purchase less than they used to. For voters to think Biden is getting this problem under control, they need to see prices that start with a 3, not a 4 or a 5, by September or October.
As is, the political trends look bleak for Democrats. A recent Associated Press analysis found that about 1 million voters, on net, have switched their party affiliation from Democratic to Republican during the last year. That’s the opposite of the trend when Trump was president, and Democrats gained more voters, on net. Those GOP gains were concentrated in suburbs, which was a particular point of strength for Biden in 2020. So a key part of Biden’s winning margin from 2020 may be defecting.
After the Supreme Court’s Roe evisceration, Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said abortion rights are “on the ballot” in November. But Democrats are Dummycrats if they think the court’s decision alone will bring a wave of voters in their direction. Democrats don’t have a plausible plan for protecting abortion rights nationwide through legislation, because there’s no chance they’ll get the 60-seat majority needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. Voters in the middle won’t side with Democrats on an ideological whim if the high cost of food, rent and gas under Dems is killing them.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is likely to keep global oil and gasoline prices elevated for as long as the shells are flying, because sanctions on Russia will get stricter, not looser. Biden has already released a record amount of oil from the strategic reserve, which has probably kept prices from going even higher. His call for Congress to suspend the federal gas tax probably won’t happen, and would barely matter if it did.
Is there any other way Biden can bust a move? Maybe. Biden plans to travel to Saudi Arabia in July, which is a surprise given Biden’s own condemnation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who likely ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The trip is already drawing plenty of flack from human rights activists, which Biden must have anticipated. Then why is he going? To seek a deal with the devil and determine the Saudis' price for pumping more oil, and not just a little more.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have spare oil capacity of at least 3 million barrels per day, which is more than enough to offset the Russian oil likely lost to sanctions by the end of the year. But both OPEC countries have declined to pump more, perhaps as a snub to Biden, or a sign of support for their oil ally Russia, or simply to capitalize on high prices. There are other tense issues between Washington and Riyadh, such as Saudi brutality in the war in neighboring Yemen and the kingdom’s cooperation with China on military issues. Biden doesn’t want everybody to think he’s going there just to beg for more oil, but if Biden returns without a deal for just that, the trip will look like an obsequious flop.
There are also negotiations to restore the nuclear deal with Iran, which would end some sanctions and let Iran sell more oil legitimately into global markets. Iran recently walked away from those talks, but they’ve now resumed. Most analysts think a deal is unlikely any time soon, but who knows, Biden might be willing to take some heat on softening toward Iran, too, if it would put more oil in markets, and lower prices.
A third thing that would bring prices down would be a resounding defeat of Russian forces on the battlefields inside Ukraine, bringing some sort of settlement into view. That’s not happening right now, with Russia actually gaining tufts of turf. But Russia is taking painful losses in the process, and powerful Western weapons are finally starting to arrive at Ukraine’s front-line units, which might tip the balance in their favor eventually. A lot more is coming, and Biden and other NATO leaders could raise the ante with fighter jets or sophisticated air-defense systems. Politically, it’s in Biden’s interest to send Russian forces packing quickly, rather than eventually.
High prices give voters a reason to oppose Biden’s Democrats in November. An ideological Supreme Court imposing theocratic laws on people who don’t want them won’t, on its own, draw voters back to a Democratic party that has no solutions of its own. Voters, disgusted with everybody, need one of the parties to show it’s able to do something that makes people’s lives better. Being less bad than the other side isn’t nearly enough.