Will Trump's political future matter to Biden in 2022 or 2024?

His party may well lose the midterms, but the US President could win reelection if he completes his legislative agenda

US politics seems to be following an extremely familiar script these days.

At the end of his first year, a new president is both achieving a great deal – indeed far more than his recent predecessors – yet is struggling at the polls with his party set for a potentially significant midterm congressional defeat. If Americans follow their well-established pattern, the Democrats will sustain significant losses next November, but two years later Joe Biden, health permitting, will be reelected.

Yet, patterns are just templates, and outcomes frequently deviate from them. Donald Trump, Mr Biden's predecessor, crashed to a significant defeat last year. And both parties are currently beset by conflicting impulses of optimism and pessimism that are equally easy to justify and critique.

According to most current polls, the Republican advantage in the upcoming congressional races looks overwhelming.

Americans are currently expressing an unprecedented preference for generic Republicans over generic Democrats, with 46 per cent preferring Republican control of the House of Representatives versus 41 per cent favouring the Democrats. And several key states have been gerrymandered to the point that Democrats would require impossible super majorities to prevail.

Yet, this bleak picture for Democrats, both in terms of historical patterns and present trends, could be misleading.

The midterm election is still 12 months away, and a great deal will change. Many Democrats are consoling themselves it's in November 2022, not 2021.

Many believe that the polling has yet to reflect the recent $1 trillion infrastructure bill breakthrough. And optimism is growing that some version of the $2tn "Build Back Better" social spending bill that just passed the House will ultimately be agreed upon by Senate Democrats as well.

If that happens, they will go into the midterms with undoubtedly the strongest package of governance achievements in more than 50 years. Although even that hardly guarantees them success, it gives them the best possible opportunity to buck the historical trend and retain control of one or both houses of Congress.

But Republicans face a much bigger problem than a potential resurgence of popularity for Mr Biden and the Democrats: Mr Trump.

The former president remains wildly popular among the Republican base, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that much of the party leadership regards him as the greatest potential obstacle for success at the polls.

The biggest concern is that he persists in endlessly relitigating the 2020 election, insisting it was the biggest fraud in US history without any evidence. Very few, if any, Republican leaders believe this and they are aware most of the public does not either.

Yet, Mr Trump with his iron grip on the party base has insisted on making fealty to his "big lie" about rampant election fraud a litmus test for Republican politicians. The fear is that if the party and its candidates generally run on claims that US democracy is a fraud and that the 2020 election was stolen, that will spell disaster in most swing states.

Even many voters who have unfounded questions about the integrity of the last election, largely because they keep hearing baseless claims to that effect, nonetheless understand the country must move on. There are no provisions in US law for reversing any of the outcome. Yet, Mr Trump is fixated on convincing everyone that he did not lose because he does not lose anything ever. This only plays well among the most devoted followers.

The tension among Republican leaders between confidence in their chances and fears of Mr Trump's potential to ruin everything have been greatly reinforced by the victory of Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, a state Mr Biden carried by 10 points in last year's presidential election.

Mr Youngkin echoed many of Mr Trump's culture wars talking points, but he almost never mentioned the former president and pretended, in effect, that he didn't exist. His veteran Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, based his whole campaign on bashing Mr Trump, but because Mr Youngkin successfully distanced himself from him and his claims about 2020, it was ineffective.

But there are increasing signs that Mr Trump, although he did not interfere in Virginia, is increasingly asserting his role as a kingmaker and arbiter among Republican candidates. His criteria largely centre around loyalty to him, his groundless claims of 2020 election fraud, and, most recently, ousting any Republicans who dared to vote for the infrastructure bill.

He is increasingly harassing Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, consistently deriding him as an "old crow", and attacking and trying to unseat the governors of Republican states he lost, such as Doug Ducey of Arizona and Brian Kemp of Georgia.

The party leadership, of course, wants to reelect strong incumbent governors and members of Congress. This is the clearest clash of interests between Mr Trump and his nominal party (he spent most of his life as a relatively liberal Democrat) since the Republican primaries of 2016.

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With the political situation so unsettled, historical patterns are probably still the best guide

Back then, the party leadership did not want Mr Trump as its nominee, but he was able to force himself upon them by overwhelmingly winning most primaries. It must be a major case of deja vu for party bigwigs.

They sense a huge opportunity, but not only do they have to worry about a possible Democratic recovery, their de facto leader appears to be preparing to sabotage many of their key candidates and pull their party even further to the radical right. And few of them believe he could regain the White House in 2024 by harping on the election in 2020.

With the political situation so unsettled, historical patterns are probably still the best guide. Republicans may not score the overwhelming victories they anticipate in Congress next year, but tradition suggests they will at least retake the House.

But if Mr Biden can add the $2tn social spending bill to the already passed $1.9tn pandemic relief measure and $1tn infrastructure bill, he will have accumulated more than enough to justify reelection in 2024, as the same historical patterns would suggest he probably will.

So, Democrats are aware that they probably have less than a year to secure whatever they can in additional spending and, just possibly, protecting elections and voting rights. After that, two years of gridlock apparently awaits. But if this pattern holds, their redemption comes in 2024, not next November. Though they may face a painful setback, that's a pretty good scenario for Mr Biden and his party.

Published: November 24th 2021, 3:00 PM
Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National