Short-term, a Biden win — as now looks incredibly likely — is still a good result for the Democrats, of course. They’ve kept control of the House of Representatives, and probably gained one Senate seat, at least providing some kind of platform for further gains in the midterms or 2024.
It’s a worse election for Republicans than it is for Democrats: that much is clear. Putting aside the expectations, forecasts, polls, and general optimism from the Democratic side, they have still managed to make Trump a one-term President. That’s not nothing.
While it is a good result for the Democrats, it is a qualified victory. With a view to the Democrats’ long-term objectives, it’s arguably a bad result for them. The natural ebb and flow of party cycles suggests that when the Presidency flips and deprives the incumbent of a second term, the party in the ascendency almost always — and needs to — win the Senate and the House.
But this is no such blowout win. The Democrats, faced with a lot to do in order to restore American democracy and the integrity of the constitution, now have their plans in tatters.
Republican Senate control means that the court is likely to stay balanced in favour of the conservative justices, and certainly puts an end to any suggestion of court-packing to equalise the balance once more. It means that the Democrats won’t have a chance to replace Breyer, leaving his seat up in the air if the GOP can take control of the White House in 2024.
It also means that statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, seen as key to reducing the Senate’s skew towards rural, typically Republican states, is completely off the table, unless 2022 or 2024 yields control of both chambers and the White House for the Democrats.
It’s hard to understate just how significant these defeats are. They were crucial to fixing American democracy and allowing the Democrats to rebalance the imbalances. They simply won’t happen now, not under a President Biden at least.
But beyond that, there’s the loss of any sort of comprehensive legislative agenda. It’s hard to imagine a reality in which Biden can get his public option for healthcare through a Republican-controlled Senate. We’ll have to settle for the reversal of Trump’s executive orders, and possibly the re-funding of Obamacare through the reversal of Trump-era tax cuts.
There’ll be little significant federal action, it seems, on climate change. Biden will be able to unilaterally re-join the Paris Climate Accords, but in terms of actual legislation, there won’t be much that could pass a Republican-controlled Senate.
Of course, Biden is not the worst President to have in this kind of situation. He’ll work to resolve partisan divides, and the one upshot of this loss for the Democrats will be that partisanship might reduce overall as America needs to rebuild in the wake of the pandemic. That can only be a good thing — and it might allow the Democrats to achieve something on healthcare, climate change, racial justice, and other national priorities.
There is also long-term electoral significance to the Democrats’ poor showing overall. Texas is no closer to being a swing state than it already was, and the same in Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, and Ohio. The Democrats had hoped to at least run these states very close, and probably win North Carolina and Florida.
Florida is particularly disappointing, given that it was believed to be leaning into the Democratic column pre-election. Instead, it’s gone big for Trump.
One result in particular from Florida was symbolic of another disappointing electoral trend for Biden and the Democrats. Miami-Dade was only in Biden’s column by 9 points, compared to Clinton’s 30 in 2016. It’s just one example of the Democrats’ worrying decline among minority voting groups and young voters. Since 2008, the Dems’ shares of the black, Latino, and Asian-American votes have been declining.
Biden has clearly done little to arrest that decline, and 2024 looks increasingly like the last chance to resuscitate this part of the blue coalition, in an increasingly non-white country.
Biden has won. That’s good. But there are so many disappointments and negative implications of this election for the Democrats. They will impact American politics — and affect the future of its democratic tradition — for years to come. This election may, sadly, have done nothing to stop the steady decline towards the zero hour moment.