As Democrats lurch to defeat on voting, it's up to Biden to get his party off the ropes

At least Democrats are reality based. Trump, his devotees and way too much of the Republican Party are from Area 51 or some other planet entirely.

America’s political choices these days are not particularly appetizing.

There are the morose and seemingly hapless Democrats, who are trying to transcend last week’s setbacks by marching straight into the jaws of defeat: guaranteed failure of their big plan to protect voting and elections

And there are the beyond-the-pale Republicans – in so many cases so cultishly devoted to Donald Trump, election lies and defending the indefensible, yet who could end up running our country. In fact, striking new Gallup data shows Republicans finished 2021 with a 5-point advantage over Democrats in party identification, compared with a 9-point disadvantage in the first quarter. 

Trump’s 2020 election denialism, the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021, and then-record COVID cases and deaths fueled the Democratic edge a year ago, according to Gallup analyst Jeffrey M. Jones. The Democratic decline began with President Joe Biden’s chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal and now reflects rising inflation and the new omicron variant. 

Democrats have a path forward

It is a time of disappointment for everyone. COVID keeps hobbling life in obvious ways – and at the same time it is a constant, nearly invisible subtext altering who we are, how we live, our careers, finances and emotional health, maybe forever. 

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Neither party has been helpful in lightening the national mood. The difference is this: Biden and Democrats are from earth. Trump, his devotees and way too much of the GOP are from Area 51 or some other planet entirely. They peddle unhinged conspiracies and crude, opportunistic lies that ignore reality or turn it upside down. 

If anything, Biden and his party are too earth-bound. They want to fix every problem in America, but their grand aspirations are mired in details, process and intraparty friction.

Former President Donald Trump at a rally in Florence, Ariz., on Jan. 15, 2022.

I don’t see much of a path forward for reality-based Republicans. Trump still has a stranglehold on the GOP and, despite the epic in-our-face ineptitude of his presidential tenure and attempts to stay in power despite losing, he might never be held legally accountable.

I do see a path forward for Democrats. It involves reframing hopes and dreams to fit realities. “Settle for less. We’ve done it before, we can do it again,” as I joked recently to friends. It’s not an inspirational battle cry, but you can get a lot done by settling for less. And if you celebrate what you are able to accomplish, you might be able to penetrate the COVID-19 pall.

Stop griping and brag about wins

Here are five talking points Democrats should take into the midterms:

Fix the 1887 Electoral Count Act that nearly let Trump steal the 2020 election. Clarify that the vice president's role is purely ceremonial, raise the bar for objecting to certified state vote tallies, protect people who run elections, grab whatever GOP partners will accept from the doomed Freedom to Vote Act (an Election Day public holiday?) and sell it as a first step.

►Figure out what West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin wants in the Build Back Better Act (Universal pre-K? Cheaper prescription drugs? A step forward on climate?), get it done and start bragging.

►Talk incessantly about the gigantic bipartisan infrastructure law that will upgrade roads, bridges, airports, water systems, power grids, public transit, broadband coverage and protection against climate-aggravated droughts, floods and wildfires.

President Joe Biden talks about the infrastructure law at the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority in Missouri on Dec. 8, 2021.

►Talk equally incessantly about the massive American Rescue Plan that helped Americans cope with pandemic health and economic damage, and temporarily lifted millions of children out of poverty by enhancing the child tax credit

►Fight like hell to extend that child tax credit, which expired last month, and if Manchin or another Democrat blocks it, pledge to fight for it in the next Congress – along with paid family leave, voting rights and other priorities.

And get some perspective. Republicans never were able to kill the Affordable Care Act, even when they had complete control of the government. The last time Democrats had complete control, they almost weren’t able to pass it.

They had 60 votes in the Senate – 10 more than they have now, enough to break a filibuster and pass a bill all by themselves. Just like now, they needed every last senator to do that. Just like now, their tent was big and diverse and demanding. And just like now, a few centrists were holding up Senate progress on the landmark bill.

Optimism is the only way to rebound

That health care debate was a preview of today’s conflicts over the filibuster and Build Back Better, right down to liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio saying four senators opposed to a government insurance option – designed to drive up competition and drive down costs – shouldn’t be “dictating to the other 56 of us and to the rest of the country" that it can’t be included.

They did dictate the terms, and the public option was dropped. On the other hand, the law set up subsidized state and federal insurance marketplaces for individuals. It also included money for states to expand Medicaid, protections for people with preexisting conditions and an end to most lifetime limits on benefits.

When COVID-19 hit and millions lost their health insurance along with their jobs, the ACA marketplaces were a lifeline. Enrollment is at an all-time high, with 14.2 million people signed up for coverage two days before the enrollment deadline Saturday.

Last week was, no question, a lousy week for Biden. He does not control the Supreme Court, which struck down his COVID-19 vaccine mandate for large employers. He does not control what any Democratic politician thinks about his agenda or the Senate filibuster. He does not control omicron or inflation or the global supply chain, or the Quinnipiac Poll that found he had a 33% job approval rating

But he can set a tone. Biden has scheduled a news conference for Wednesday, the same day as a Senate vote expected to stall his drive for voting rights and a day before the first anniversary of his presidency. Let’s hope he emphasizes the positive. This is not cockeyed optimism. It is a political imperative. Optimists tend to win, and Democrats can’t afford to lose. The alternative is a bunch of R-Area 51 lawmakers in the next Congress and a strongman back in the Oval Office.

Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence