The history surrounding the April 15, 1912, peacetime sinking of the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic has been exhaustively documented. The primary historical takeaway has been that the ship’s builders, and its boosters in government and industry, had fallen prey to technology hubris: Ships could be built to withstand the worst natural hazards and calamities that Mother Nature could throw at them. A massive iceberg in the North Atlantic put paid to such conceits, with over 1,500 on board sent to their deaths in the briny deep. In the wake of last fall’s catastrophic midterms, the GOP may be discovering that the electorate — at least, those that went to the polls — inhabit political worlds different than imagined, different than polls suggested, and, above all, different than standard diagnoses indicated.
Many post-election diagnoses identify bad candidates, lack of positive issues, focus on the 2020 election, Donald Trump, poor allocation of limited campaign resources, etc. All these points carry some salience. But they miss — excuse the pun — the elephant in the room: failure of GOP and independent voters to keep uppermost in mind what midterms above all represent — a referendum report card on the performance of the president.
In ordinary times, this focus is less significant, and voters may choose to focus on the candidates on the ballot, congressional, senatorial, and gubernatorial — even, at times, key high-visibility mayoral races. In the presidential year of 1960, the Kennedy–Nixon debates showcased remarkably similar positions; a common expression of the choice was Tweedledum and Tweedledee. In such times, off-year elections have less saliency.
Not so in 2022. Not when the country has seen the worst performance of a president’s first two years since at least the Civil War. Many have said that had President Joe Biden purposefully set out to damage America, he hardly could have done worse; some indeed have asserted that he intentionally sought to weaken America. Who is correct on this proposition matters not at all.
What mattered most was stopping the president from another two years of inflicting catastrophic damage: (a) roaring inflation, the highest in 40 years; (b) runaway spending, which added trillions to the national debt, already at record levels; (c) replacing a net energy surplus in 2020 — the first in 70 years — with renewed dependence on foreign oil, necessitating tin-cup tours seeking access to increased oil-production exports; (d) a literally open border, with record millions streaming across our undefended southern border, without screening for terrorists — or for COVID, despite such screening being supported by 80 percent of the voters; (e) allowing crossings by migrants under indentured servitude to the drug cartels and annually importing enough fentanyl to kill every American; and (f) an epic crime wave underway in America’s large cities.
With such calamities unfolding, a red tsunami was essential to keep to a minimum further damage during the president’s term. Instead, we had what is barely a sidewalk puddle. This happened because Republican and independent voters did not turn out in sufficient numbers for the only poll that matters, cast in the voting booth. In doing so, they voted for two more calamitous years. This holds regardless of their motives; voting machines tally actual votes, not the reasons behind voter choices.
In order to stop the president and his minions on Capitol Hill, the GOP needed enough of a margin to lose wavering Republican votes; unlike the Democrats, who have the internal discipline of a totalitarian party, the GOP has a bigger tent. Thus, John Boehner, who, ascending to the House speakership in the wake of a GOP landslide in 2014, could not keep his flock in line with 255 votes; the Democrats can run the House with 218 votes. The House is now 221–214 Republican, and while Speaker Kevin McCarthy is off to a good start, the narrow margin will often severely limit what the GOP can accomplish. The 51–49 Senate means the Democrats can confirm another passel of hard-leftist judicial nominees, a collection of Ketanji Brown Jackson clones.
Thus, voters unable to set aside their reservations about GOP candidates as to their positions on specific issues delivered what the president and his legislative leadership interpret as a mandate to continue the policies that are impoverishing, sundering, and literally endangering the republic. In these highly partisan times — now arguably the most deeply divided since the Civil War — voters should have felt an overriding obligation to above all limit further vast damage inflicted on America by the party in power.
Democrats are further energized because (a) despite blatant election fraud, an Arizona judge dismissed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s lawsuit; (b) most voters gave Biden what amounts to an ungentlemanly C — instead of a failing grade; (c) the GOP ran poorly with independents, winning 38 percent, way below the 51 percent Democrats won in 2018; (d) a hyper-partisan mainstream media deliberately covered up the border chaos with words calculated to obfuscate, leaving most voters blissfully unaware of the massive influx of illegals — unprecedented in modern times; (e) the government’s admission that it cannot even locate records of 378,000 migrants taken into custody — a number greater than what a plurality of poll respondents gave for total 2021-2022 border crossings; (f) an avalanche of bogus asylum claims, creating de facto mass amnesty.
The full extent of the mainstream media immigration news blackout is made clear in this detailed description by Never-Trumper Andy McCarthy:
Broadly speaking, the country does not know how bad the situation at the border is. As the Center for Immigration Studies’ Andrew Arthur points out, in recent polling by Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies, just 13 percent knew that there were over 2 million illegal border crossings per year. Not only did the remaining 87 percent significantly underestimate the number of illegal entries, but more than half of them believed the number to be less than half a million.
McCarthy goes further, charting a course to bypass media disinformation and set the stage for Republicans winning in 2024 what they utterly failed to do in 2022. His article gives the staggering numbers for illegal migrants during Biden’s first 23 months: at least 6 million, or 2,600 per day. But that does not allow for the steep increase in 2022, as it took months for the cartels to organize caravans, etc. McCarthy explains the results to date, and the likely consequences to come:
To provide some perspective, during the Obama–Biden years, the Department of Homeland Security regarded it as a crisis if the number of illegal-alien encounters inched up to 1,000 per day, which computes to 365,000 per year. “A thousand [per day] overwhelms the system,” Obama’s former DHS secretary, Jeh Johnson, acknowledged in a 2019 interview. At the time, the Trump administration was dealing with four times that amount due to a surge in border arrivals by alien family units and unaccompanied alien minors. (The surge was caused by the refusal of congressional Democrats to cooperate in Trump’s signature border-security priority; it was quelled, as Rich Lowry related, because Trump induced cooperation from other countries.)
Thanks to Biden’s wholesale adoption of transnational-progressive radicalism, we are now at seven times the number that Johnson conceded would constitute a crisis. Post–Title 42, we could find ourselves at 18 times that amount, or perhaps even more — and remember, that’s just the apprehensions, not the got-aways.
There is more. Three major polls released in late January/early February present sobering numbers: (a) a majority of voters call lack of leadership the top political issue; (b) a majority also say that President Biden has accomplished little, citing the economy, border crossings, and Russia/Ukraine; (c) 41 percent say that their personal finances have worsened under Biden — the worst number in 37 years.
Then there is New York City, 41 percent of whose voters name crime as their top issue, miles ahead of affordable housing (17 percent), homelessness (12 percent), inflation and immigration (both 8 percent). Crime ranks first for 63 percent of GOP voters, 53 percent of independents, and 30 percent of Democrats. Forty percent feel “less safe,” 53 percent “about the same,” and 8 percent feel “safer.” Mayor Eric Adams, 13 months into his mayoralty, is 21 points underwater, 57-36 percent; his disapprove number is 78 percent for GOP voters, 63 percent with independents, and 48 percent among Democrats. With robbery up 32 percent, rape 11 percent, and burglary 29 percent, who can blame them? Gov. Kathy Hochul refuses to blame “get out of jail free” bail “reform” for the rise. Yet NYC voters voted for Hochul over Lee Zeldin, who promised to fire Manhattan’s woke D.A. on his first day in office if elected. Had Zeldin even made the high-30s in the city, he’d have been elected governor. NYC voters could have sent a message to Democrats nationwide with an upset win by Zeldin. Instead they voted — wittingly or unwittingly — for continued rising crime and unsafe streets.
Something is afoot here: Voter attitudes like these would normally signal a Red wave. Yet voters would not send a message to the Oval Office occupant. Either they opted to accept two more years of catastrophic decline, or they believe that Biden will improve. But a president who reads, as Biden did, the 2022 midterm result as an endorsement of his policies — in his State of the Union speech, he also asserted that “the State of the Union is strong”— is far more likely to double down than trim his sails.
A longtime conservative commentator wrote of the elections that Republican candidates failed on two counts: (a) they did not offer solutions to the problems created by the Biden administration; (b) they addressed abortion solely in terms of federalism — avoiding the substance of the issue. His article missed the boat, so to speak, on both counts. The party out of power cannot pass anything; at best, it can explain why the party in power is messing up. It is only in presidential election years that the party out of power must offer alternatives which, if the party captures the presidency, and wins a sufficient majority in Congress, it can pass and implement.
The party’s message that should suffice in off-year elections is: The first rule of the hole is to stop digging. Had the GOP made tsunami-level gains in 2022, it would have been positioned to stop the president’s program; and with the Senate, it could have forced the president to appoint left-wing moderates, instead of radicals like Kentanji Brown Jackson, to the federal bench. A Red tsunami would have shocked Democrats in Congress facing reelection in 2024 to reevaluate their chances if they back the administration.
As to the second point: Federalism is a bedrock foundation of conservative governance. President Reagan made it a central theme of his presidency. And within each state, the principle of subsidiarity pushes solutions down to local levels. The whole point of the Dobbs decision was that Roe v. Wade had taken from the states their rightful role in determining social policy. The states are supposed to be laboratories where policies can be tried, and results tabulated, as to what policies work best. The importance of federalism is best illustrated by the Trump policy of, after a couple months of lockdown, letting the states pursue their own solutions. Had that not been done — had Hillary, or any other imaginable Democrat, been president — a national lockdown policy would be been imposed, following Michigan Gov. Gretchen Witmer (with, of course, a “we’re royalty” exemption — rules for thee but not for we — for the president and pals). The courts would never have ruled against the lockdown policy in the absence of empirical evidence that anti-lockdown states were doing as well, even better, than lockdown states. Federalism thus saved America from a health policy tyranny.
Bottom Line. The off-year election is the one chance voters have during a presidential term to send a distress message to the occupant of the Oval Office. They chose not to do so in 2022. They will suffer, and deserve, the consequences (along with those who voted Republican and alas do not deserve the pain almost certain to come). As for 2024, all bets are off.
The 2022 election had all the elements in place for a Red tsunami. And the GOP did win 3 million more votes in House races, but did not get a commensurate return. Turnout was 46.5 percent. The latter number surprises. One would think that with all the bad news, and a president voters blamed for multiple calamities, voters would have understood the need to check the White House, and turn out in large enough numbers to flip both houses. But they did not see it that way.
True, there will be fewer GOP incumbent Senate seats at stake in 2024, and more opportunities for pickups. But given the gap between voter attitudes and how they voted, retaking the White House, keeping the GOP House micro-majority while electing a GOP Senate will likely be a tall order.
Which brings us back to RMS Titanic. What Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously called “our Ship of State” may already have hit the iceberg.
John Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (Discovery Institute Press, 2d. ed. 2014).