Imagine this: It’s a gray, chilly day in Washington, D.C., in March of 2023. A handful of protesters from left-leaning groups like Indivisible are huddled outside against the icy Potomac winds, but mostly there’s a climate of disbelief in the nation’s capitol as the GOP-dominated House of Representatives wraps up debate over the impeachment of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., 46th president of the United States.
It was little more than five months since the Republicans gained 43 House seats in the 2022 midterms, many in newly gerrymandered seats, and since the incoming chair of House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, started studying a menu of equally off-the-wall options — Hunter Biden’s laptop, the Afghanistan withdrawal, or something unprecedented about the president’s mental acuity — for Biden impeachment hearings.
In the end, Jordan and his colleagues — including the radical QAnon conspiracy theorists who’d replaced GOP moderates Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger — decided that the pretext didn’t even matter that much.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — who’d staved off a challenge to his leadership by flying to Mar-a-Lago and promising Donald Trump that Biden, just like his predecessor, would wear the stain of impeachment — delivered the closing speech and noted that Republicans had promised “to end this age of decline, and end this presidency.” A Code Pink protester burst onto the floor and screamed “Why are you doing this?!” before two burly guards dragged her out, while a handful of Trump supporters in the gallery began chanting, “Let’s Go Brandon.”
This is America’s immediate future, and yet — with all the sometimes ridiculous inside-the-Beltway speculation about less urgent and less likely matters like whether Democrats ditch Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — it’s clear that neither the press, the public, nor the political classes are truly ready for the year that is going to shake American democracy to its core: 2023.
A couple of developments this week brought the collision course that looms a little more than a year from now into sharper focus. On Capitol Hill, the bitterly partisan fight over Wednesday’s censure of Republican right-wing zealot Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona — who’d tweeted a cartoon video of him killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — revealed the depths of the GOP’s obsession with political revenge if and when the party retakes control of Congress. Said McCarthy, currently the minority leader: “What they [Democrats] have started cannot be easily undone.”
At the same time, a growing number of polls suggest that it will take something of a political miracle in November 2022 for Democrats to prevent that GOP House majority from happening. With swing voters riled up over inflation, frustration over a pandemic that refuses to end, an inflamed culture war, and questions about Biden’s leadership that spiked with press coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal, a new survey shows congressional Republicans leading a generic ballot over Democrats by 51%-41%, their biggest margin in the 40-year history of the question.
That’s not a shock. Barring some kind of 9/11-style nightmare than nobody wants, the party out of power in the White House usually gains seats in that president’s first midterm election — but 2022 will fought on a wildly uneven playing field, thanks to the every-10-years congressional mapping strategy known as gerrymandering.
Republicans — who control the majority of state legislatures, partly because of their radical gerrymandering a decade ago — are for the most part using that edge to create a national map that would make next year’s midterm outlook bleak for Democrats even if the party bounced back to roughly even in those polls. Typical is the remapping process in competitive states that lean slightly Republican like North Carolina — where party registration is roughly equal yet the new districts tilt 10-4 for the GOP — or Ohio, where Republicans who got 55% of the 2020 presidential vote gerrymandered a stunning 12-3 congressional edge. A House-passed bill that would have stymied extreme gerrymandering was rejected by the great American “decider” of the 2020s, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
No wonder that a number of political scientists queried this week by the New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall had two basic outlooks for the Democrats in 2022: Gloomy, and gloomier. They predicted Republicans could pick up at least 24 seats and maybe as many as 40-plus to obliterate the current narrow Democratic majority. Tufts University political scientist Brian Schaffner told Edsall “many perhaps expected that a return to normal leadership would immediately solve the unprecedented problems facing the country. Of course, that was never a realistic expectation.”
Despite the polls and the ugliness this past week on the House floor, most punditry and many political junkies remain more fixated on 2024 — the return of Trump to the main stage, or questions over Biden running again — than the political crisis that seems likely to come before it. If the Democrats aim to pull off a “do you believe in miracles? ... yes!” comeback in the midterm elections, there are a couple of things that need to happen. The first is to make clear to an electorate that gave Biden a 7-million vote margin in 2020 what the consequences of GOP rule in Congress will be ... such as:
— A Biden impeachment. The most extreme Republicans on Capital Hill have been champing at the bit to hold Biden impeachment hearings. In fact, four GOP House members filed lost-cause impeachment articles against the 46th president back in September, citing a hodgepodge of supposed causes such as the temporary chaos in Afghanistan, last spring’s surge in migrants at the border, and his handling of the then-eviction moratorium. Given the party’s Trump-inspired push for tit-for-tat revenge against Democrats, it’s not hard to picture a 2023 effort to put Biden on a par with POTUS 45, who was impeached twice for the Ukraine scandal and the January 6 insurrection.
— The end of accountability for January 6 and Trump’s failed coup. Within weeks of arguably the most dangerous day for American democracy since the end of the Civil War, the overwhelming majority of GOPers on Capitol Hill made clear their belief that any investigations into the causes and the leaders of the insurrection are a partisan witch hunt over what they now insist was over-caffeinated Capitol rotunda “tourism.” Any lingering threads from the current House probe will be left hanging, and it’s possible that Attorney General Merrick Garland would himself be impeached if he attempted to criminally charge Trump or other ring leaders.
— A revenge-obsessed 118th Congress that will spend most of its time on Benghazi-style hearings aimed to embarrass members of the Biden administration as well as the president and vice president, and on efforts to censure the left-wing members of the so-called Squad that includes Ocasio-Cortez and lightning-rod allies like Rep. Ilhan Omar, and to remove them from committees as happened with Gosar and GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Any issue-related bills from a McCarthy-led House would likely ignore the economy or other critical issues, in favor of banning abortion and the teaching of “critical race theory.”
There are number of reasons to fear this scenario and yet also feel a bit baffled. Any GOP “wave election” in 2022 would be driven by independent swing voters who are said to be disappointed that Biden hasn’t done more to stop inflation or end the COVID-19 crisis, yet there’s no Republican agenda for dealing with these, or any of the other actual problems facing America. Of course, GOP candidates like Virginia governor-elect Glenn Youngkin succeeded not with ideas but by whipping up cultural resentments.
Democrats are being politically naive (not exactly a new phenomenon) in thinking that a strong package of spending bills — on infrastructure and probably to expand pre-K and extend child tax credits — or that even rosy predictions from no less than Goldman Sachs of record-low unemployment in 2022 will change the dynamic. They need to remember that Biden won last year not so much on his economic promises but by framing the election to Trump-exhausted voters as “a battle for the soul of America.”
So far, 2021 has only showed that winning a key battle did not end this war. If anything, what Republicans are willing to do with Trump out of power could ultimately prove an even greater threat to democracy than actually having the authoritarian-yet-inept Trump in the White House. Democrats need to begin sounding this alarm today — that voters who turned out in near-record numbers in 2020 to defeat the culture of Trumpism need to defy history and show up next November, to prevent something even worse. Yes, today’s electorate is tired of chaos, but they should wait until 2023 — because they ain’t seen nothing yet.
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