The battles of next year's midterm congressional elections will be won on the playing fields of this summer.
Political professionals know this is not a fallow period in the struggle for control of Congress — and in the fight for the destiny of Joe Biden's presidency. The contours of next year's political contests are being established in the sunshine of August. There are, to be sure, many moving parts — candidate recruitment, for example, and reapportionment — but the point is that these vital parts are moving now.
So in our summertime reveries, it is not too soon to look ahead by looking behind the curtain. Here is a viewers' guide to this important passage in the political season:
The Democratic agenda
The script for the rhetoric of 2022 is being drafted in 2021. For Democrats, it involves what they have accomplished while they've controlled the White House and Capitol Hill. For the Republicans, it is the opposite: how they prevented Democratic excesses this year, and how the Democrats have overplayed their hands — seemingly contradictory notions but, in fact, complementary themes.
"This is the definitive period," said Tad Devine, a leading Democratic political consultant. "The Democrats are putting their agenda out for public inspection. The bottom line will be how that agenda is defined."
Trillions for COVID-19 relief, trillions more for infrastructure, additional trillions for various liberal priorities from climate change to immigration initiatives approved at 3:58 a.m. Wednesday — all of these the Democrats will offer up as proof of their determination to guide the country away from the Trump years and into a sunlit upland of a safe and humane civilization. All of those, too, will be employed by the Republicans to argue that the Democrats are playing in a red zone of fiscal irresponsibility and socialism.
Who wins that argument? It depends on whether 2022 is a rerun of 2018, when the Democrats roared back after the first two years of the Trump ascendancy, or of 2010, when the Republicans seized on the early Barack Obama years to argue that the country was careening leftward.
There is danger for both sides. For the Republicans, the peril is being the party of "no" at a time when the country is yearning to hear "yes," especially in this high-temperature, high fire-risk period when climate issues and economic distress hold the headlines. For the Democrats, they are in jeopardy because they have the power to press through with big-spending plans — and are doing so.
The Democrats reclaimed the House in 2018 by presenting a contrast with Trump and, moreover, by assembling a group of moderate candidates who appealed to suburban voters.
The Democrats lost the House in 2010 by veering too far leftward, relinquishing net 63 seats, the biggest defeat for a president's party since 1938.
In the journal Political Science and Politics, Stanford political scientists David W. Brady, Morris P. Fiorina and Arjun S. Wilkins examined the 2010 midterms and concluded that "the real problem for many House Democrats was most likely the Democratic agenda." That agenda included the health care law now known as Obamacare and a cap-and-trade energy and environment bill that passed the House in June 2009 but failed to win Senate passage the following year.
The Stanford scholars' analysis suggested that had the Democrats taken a different posture on health care and cap-and-trade, they would have saved between 22 and 40 seats and perhaps their legislative majority. "To be sure, putting health care and energy on the back burner would have frustrated strong Democrats," they wrote, "but possibly no more than the defeat of cap-and-trade and the passage of a compromise health care bill did."
The preeminent question this time: Will history repeat itself — and which history will be repeated?
This is the period when the parties search for their most appealing candidates for House and Senate races more than 14 months in the future. Given fundraising requirements, next year may be too late. It isn't only NFL teams that are in vital preseason drills right now. The Republicans and Democrats are, too — especially for the very expensive Senate races, which need large media budgets.
There is some bad news for Republicans, who have been unable to recruit top-tier candidates for the four vulnerable Senate seats held by Mark Kelly of Arizona, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Raphael Warnock of Georgia. At the same time, Republicans are worrying that Chuck Grassley, 87, may not seek an eighth term from Iowa and Ron Johnson may not seek a third term from Wisconsin. In Pennsylvania, two strong candidates from the western half of the state, Rep. Conor Lamb and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, are seeking to replace retiring GOP Sen. Patrick Toomey. The Ohio race to replace GOP Sen. Rob Portman looks to be a close-run thing.
The 2020 census set in motion the complicated, contentious process of removing House seats from seven states (West Virginia, Pennsylvania and California, among others) and adding seats to six states (Florida, Texas and Colorado, among others).
The result is real uncertainty. "The wild card is reapportionment," said John Brabender, a veteran Republican strategist. "We don't know which districts will become more competitive and which ones will become less competitive — or which may not even exist next November."
But at this distance, the overall advantage may go to the Republicans, whose power base is states with growing populations, with an important multiplier effect: The Republican lawmakers who have announced their retirements generally come from places where the GOP is strong, minimizing the risk that the seats will turn from Republican red to Democratic blue, while the retirement of some Democrats, such as Rep. Charlie Crist, who is seeking to return to the governor's chair in Florida, puts some blue seats in jeopardy.
Whither the country?
The most recent Economist/YouGov poll, completed earlier this month, shows more than half the country believes the nation is going in the wrong direction, with about a third believing it is heading in the right direction. Fewer than a third of Americans rated the economy as "excellent" (4 percent) or "good" (24 percent). Sentiment like that is seldom good for the governing party, which does not receive a mulligan for being in power during difficult days.
Bottom line: Training camp is almost over. Let the games begin.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter @ShribmanPG.