What’s Next for the Democrats?

The party’s better-than-expected performance in the midterm elections may lead to greater party unity and a second term for Biden

The past and the future? Image Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images

The Associated Press finally called the race for the House of Representatives in favor of Republicans. Though they are losing control of the chamber, Democrats performed much better than expected and will trail House Republicans by fewer than five seats. Democrats similarly outperformed expectations in the Senate. They currently are projected to have a 50-seat majority (Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie-breaking vote), and if they win the Georgia runoff, that will be bumped up to 51.

By almost any standard, this is a surprising overperformance by Democrats (or underperformance by Republicans, depending on how you look at it). But more than a week past Election Day, the shock has subsided a bit, leaving room to move on from racehorse politics to a more substantive discussion of what the next two years of American politics will look like.

By dint of their position in the White House and Senate, Democrats are going to hold onto most of the power in D.C., so it’s worthwhile to focus on what the next two years have in store for the Democratic Party in particular. On this front, there are several interesting and important questions about how the next two years will play out. Five are at the top of my mind: (1) Will Joe Biden run for reelection? (2) What will happen to Democratic leadership in Congress? (3) What parts of their agenda will Democrats be able to pass? (4) Is there a chance for Democrats to make any bipartisan deals? (5) Will progressives and moderates fight or find unity?

The next two years will likely feature a few bumps for Democrats. But if Joe Biden runs for reelection as I expect him to, and once the contests for Democratic leadership in the House have concluded, Democrats will be on a glide path toward party unity.

Will Biden Run in 2024?

Joe Biden has been running for president for the past 35 years. Ever since his first doomed bid for the 1988 Democratic nomination, Biden has imagined himself as the leader of the free world. In 2020, he finally realized that vision when he toppled Donald Trump. And now that Biden has finally achieved his life’s ambition, he has to determine if he is satisfied with one term as president or if he wants another.

Ambitious political animals like Biden don’t just give up on their dreams of their own accord. There is only really one reason I can see Biden choosing not to run for reelection: his health. Biden will be 81 by the time of the 2024 election, and it’s not hard to imagine him having a serious health incident that inhibits his ability to perform the duties of the president. And even if that doesn’t happen, there still could be a viral moment that is perceived as evidence that Biden is too old and feeble to be president. In either situation, Biden could face enough political, familial or physical pressure to pass the presidential baton.

Barring that, though, I find it unlikely that Biden will retire early. The strong Democratic performance in the midterms gave Biden a new lease on life. If he faces any internal party pressure to resign, Biden can just point to the party’s midterm success as proof that he’s the right guy to continue leading the party. Biden says he’ll make his official decision “early next year.” We’ll have to wait and see, but my instinct is that the decision’s already been made.

Democratic Leadership in Congress

On Thursday, Nancy Pelosi announced that she would be stepping down from her position as leader of the House Democrats, ending 20 years in the top role. The decision is bound to set off a scramble for power within the Democratic conference. It remains to be seen exactly what Pelosi’s longtime deputies—Steny Hoyer from Maryland and James Clyburn from South Carolina—plan to do. If they decide to retire from leadership alongside Pelosi, which seems likely, it will usher in a new generation of Democratic leadership.

No matter what Clyburn and Hoyer decide, however, competition for jobs up and down Democratic leadership will be fierce, unpredictable and incredibly difficult to follow for those who don’t already know the players.

Just consider the fight for minority leader: In corner A, we have Hakeem Jeffries, an ally of Pelosi’s who is currently the #5 Democrat in the House. But Jeffries is despised by some on the left for forming Team Blue PAC, which was designed to protect Democratic incumbents from being primaried, but which progressives saw as a way to stymie progressive insurgents. In corners B and C are Hoyer and Clyburn, who may decide that they’re not ready to step down alongside Pelosi and that it’s their time to lead the conference. In corner D is the candidate that the progressive wing of the caucus will likely enlist to compete with the more moderate (or “corporate,” as his detractors call him) Jeffries.

My money would be on Jeffries: He’s already in leadership, and he has allies across the conference. He’s also young and Black, representing a sharp break from the 80-something-year-olds who currently lead the party. But in reality, exactly how this will play out is anybody’s guess. The race will be complex, will rely on hundreds of relationships and personalities and will be tough to follow. And the same is true for the other top Democratic spots: whip, caucus chair, caucus vice chair, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair and on down the list

Again, exactly how these fights will play out depends on what Hoyer and Clyburn decide to do. If they step down, there will be a scramble for their leadership posts. And even if they stay, they may still face competition from younger upstarts who decide that now is their moment. In any case, it will be worth becoming familiar with whoever comes out on top in these leadership fights, because they will likely be pivotal figures within the Democratic Party for years to come.

Meanwhile, over in the Senate, machinations are much less exciting and less complicated. Chuck Schumer is going to hold onto his job as Majority Leader. And his top deputies — Dick Durban and Patty Murray — will hold onto their jobs too.

The Legislative Agenda

Legislatively, Democrats will be stuck. Any hope they had of building on the past two years and passing more of their agenda died when it became clear that Republicans would take control of the House. But this setback could play to Democrats’ benefit in an electoral sense, as they won’t be allowed to overplay their hand and pass an unpopular progressive agenda. If, for instance, Joe Manchin hadn’t put the brakes on the $2.4 trillion Build Back Better legislation that passed the House, Democrats would likely have faced much more backlash in the midterms for forcing through a massive spending package. With the House in Republican hands, Democrats need not worry about getting out over their skis and enacting an electorally unpopular agenda.

That said, it’s not as if Democrats won’t be able to do anything. With Democratic control of the Senate, Biden will be able to keep churning out judicial appointments and fill the federal bench with more progressive and diverse judges. Similarly, he could continue to sign executive orders (with occasionally dubious constitutionality) pushing progressive priorities, as he did when he canceled billions of dollars of student debt. There are plenty of other things Biden could try to do with his presidential pen: On the progressive wish list are changing cannabis’s category so that it’s no longer a Schedule I drug, making more Americans qualify for federal benefits by changing how poverty is calculated, restricting oil drilling on federal lands and so on.

But the president can only do so much alone. Ultimately, if Democrats want to pass any legislation, they’ll need some level of bipartisan support to do so.

Chances for Bipartisanship

During his time in Congress and as vice president, Joe Biden earned a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker. He made a point of befriending colleagues across the aisle—to the extent that progressives attacked him during the presidential primary for the friendships he forged in the 1970s with racist and segregationist senators. During the first two years of his presidency, Biden has managed to get bipartisan support for several major pieces of legislation, including bills on gun safety, infrastructure and semiconductor investments. Though his bipartisan bona fides certainly took a few hits when he labeled his Republican opponents as “semi-fascist,” Biden is still, at heart, a guy who likes a good old-fashioned compromise.

This is why I’m moderately confident that Democrats and Republicans will at least attempt to come together on some bipartisan legislation. It’s unlikely that they’ll make deals on any particularly contentious issues of the day, such as immigration or healthcare, but some policy spheres have enough overlap that some bills may find their way through the House and Senate.

Three policy areas, in particular, have potential for compromise. The first is addressing the threat posed by China. The semiconductor bill passed earlier in the year is one example of this kind of legislation, and it’s not hard to imagine Congress passing more bills to invest in domestic manufacturing of technology, strengthen the non-China supply chain, further restrain trade with China, force TikTok to split from its Chinese owner, Bytedance, or support Taiwan militarily.

The second area where Republicans and Democrats may come together is on restraining “big tech.” Populists on both sides of the aisle, from Republican Senator Josh Hawley to Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, believe America’s major technology companies are exerting a nefarious influence on Americans. While their diagnoses for exactly what’s wrong can diverge (Democrats are generally worried about dis- and misinformation, while Republicans are more concerned with censorship and biased content moderation), both sides of the aisle have expressed concern about the monopoly power of companies such as Facebook, Apple and Amazon, and policymakers have been moving legislation through the Senate to address some of these concerns.

The third area with potential for bipartisanship is criminal justice issues. The libertarian-leaning right often is sympathetic to reforms on policing and criminal justice. Further, Republicans and Democrats were able to pass the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill championed by Republican Senator Tim Scott and signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, which made several reforms to federal prisons and criminal sentencing and instituted programs to reduce recidivism. Perhaps there’s room on this front for a Second Step.

Also, some contentious policy areas may unexpectedly command bipartisan support. Immigration is a polarizing issue, but maybe there’s room for the GOP to moderate and sign a Dream Act into law in exchange for more funding for border security. Or maybe populists will come together to ban congressmembers from trading stocks. There’s also the chance that smaller or less flashy bills could make it through, such as reforming the permitting process (a pet project of Joe Manchin’s and something Republicans could seemingly get on board with) or making it easier to open a bank account (an issue on which Republican Tim Scott and Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto have worked together). In other words, despite the tenor of politics, I wouldn’t count out the possibility of bipartisanship completely.

Polarization or Party Unity?

There’s no getting around the fact that the upcoming fights for Democratic leadership in the House are very likely to be contentious. And if I am wrong and Joe Biden decides not to run for reelection, the presidential primary is also likely to be a fierce battle between moderate and progressive wings of the party.

But once the leadership team is in place, and if Biden announces his reelection campaign, there’s reason to believe that Democrats will be relatively unified over the next two years. With Republicans taking control of the House and likely launching investigations that Democrats see as spurious, Trump running for president and DeSantis entering the national scene, Democrats will have no shortage of foils on the right.

Furthermore, Democrats saw last week that running against the GOP is actually a pretty good strategy for winning elections. With the stakes so high heading into 2024—many Democrats see a second Trump or a DeSantis presidency as a threat to the country’s very existence—the party will find it morally and electorally necessary to tamp down internal squabbles and unify against the GOP. The fact that Republicans are going to hold the House will make this even easier, because Democrats won’t really have any chance of passing a positive agenda, meaning there won’t be fights over how far to push their legislative goals.

We’ve already seen some progressive Democrats start to circle the wagons. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, published an opinion essay in The New York Times saying that “this [midterm] electoral success belongs to Mr. Biden”—a man she was pillorying just three years ago for being insufficiently progressive. None of this is to say that Democrats will find complete unity and all intraparty disputes will evaporate, but most fights will either not take place at all or will happen behind the scenes. The unity will look especially stark when compared with the intraparty feuds that are barreling toward the GOP.

A Caveat About Political Punditry

The tight margins in both the Senate and the House mean that there is a good chance of something unexpected happening and changing the course of American politics. A political scandal, a rogue progressive or conservative, a stubborn moderate or any number of political surprises could all upset the apple cart. And the election in Georgia, though it won’t decide control of the Senate, will determine how much breathing room Democrats have to lose support from moderate senators such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

In other words, everything that happens is contingent on the personalities and incentives of hundreds of politicians and the quirks of political fate. It would be foolish to assume we know exactly how the next two years of politics will play out. But it would also be foolish not to try, given all that’s at stake.

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