Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Democrats Are Running as Opposition Party

Usually the out-party runs as the opposition to the White House. This year, the Supreme Court and Trump have made it possible for Democrats to run as a check on Republican extremism.
August 5, 2022
Democrats Are Running as Opposition Party
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages /Shutterstock)

In a typical midterm election, the party not holding the presidency casts itself as a check on the incumbent administration, even more so when the president’s party controls both chambers of Congress. The elections of 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2018 all started with unified government and all ended with the out-party winning control of the House (and the Senate in 1994).

The in-party has never been able to wear the “check and balance” mantle—until this year. During the 2022 midterm, there are a couple of ways in which the Democratic appeal is essentially that they will act as a counterweight against an out-of-step Republican party.

The first involves the Supreme Court. Historically we refer to the legislative and executive as the “political branches,” as opposed to the supposedly apolitical judiciary. The general public no longer sees the Court that way. In a Quinnipiac University survey, 63 percent of voters agreed that “the Supreme Court is mainly motivated by politics.” And a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 74 percent of adults say the Court has become “too politicized.”

If people regard the Court as a political branch that is overreaching what the public wants, then they may view the midterms as a way to check it.

Earlier this year, a C-SPAN survey asked likely voters if they could name any Supreme Court cases. Only one case was broadly familiar to respondents: Roe v. Wade. (Roe was named by 40 percent of the survey; Brown v. Board of Education came in second at 6 percent.) When the Court overturned Roe with the Dobbs decision, public disapproval was quick and emphatic.

And questions about the Court extend beyond abortion. When Justice Thomas suggested that the Court should revisit same-sex marriage and contraception in his concurring opinion, he handed Democrats a sharp rhetorical weapon. They are using it.

Democrats have followed up with bills to codify various (quite popular) rights that could be under threat from the Court. Whether or not any such legislation makes it into law this year, the roll-call votes are putting the GOP on the defensive and keeping “the Republican Supreme Court” in voters’ minds.

The Court does seem to be on the ballot. Democrats began reversing their polling declines only after the Dobbs decision as released. Having trailed in the generic congressional ballot, they have made real gains. In many polls, abortion ranks high as an election issue.

Another target for checks and balances is Donald Trump. In normal times, voters would not see any need to check the loser of the last presidential election. But these are not normal times. Trump is likely to run in 2024 and has already said as much.

Most Republican voters believe the lie that Trump won the 2020 election and as we saw on January 6, some of them are willing to act on that delusion. Trump and his followers are openly trying to stock Congress and state governments with election deniers. Many of them will be in office next year. Accordingly, a vote for Democrats is a vote against a powerful foe—not an incumbent administration, but a government-in-waiting and its accomplices.

In a just-released CBS poll, 45 percent said that their vote for Congress is about Donald Trump—which is statistically the same as the 47 percent who said that it is about the actual president, Joe Biden.

Democrats have many problems. The economy is rocky and Biden is deeply unpopular. A larger than normal share of Democratic House incumbents are not running for reelection, which is always a leading indicator of losses. Their starting margins are thin.

And yet, Democrats have been handed an opportunity to portray themselves as the opposition party. For the last five election cycles, that has been a good place to be.

John J. Pitney, Jr.

John J. Pitney, Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump.