How a Republican Victory Could Help, Not Hurt, Biden

The midterms may cost him Congress, but they’ll also ignite a new round of Republican infighting.

hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
Michael Hirsh
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Supporters attend a primary election night event for J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, in Cincinnati on May 3.
Supporters attend a primary election night event for J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, in Cincinnati on May 3.
Supporters attend a primary election night event for J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, in Cincinnati on May 3. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s close to an iron rule in American politics: A first-term president almost always loses seats in Congress in his first midterm election. But this trend is not always fatal or even damaging to the man in the White House—especially as he looks to reelection two years later.

U.S. President Joe Biden is no doubt hoping for this outcome as he faces the likelihood of losing one or both chambers of Congress on Nov. 8. Beyond that, the specter of a possible rematch with his 2020 rival, former President Donald Trump, whom Biden soundly defeated but who continues to reject the outcome, looms just around the corner.

Biden has witnessed this model of political success up close, since he lived through it as Barack Obama’s vice president. In the 2010 midterms, two years after he was elected president, Obama got pummeled at the polls, losing the House and six seats in the Senate. But—in an early sign that all was not well with the Republican establishment—that outcome led to such serious infighting inside the Republican Party that Obama coasted to reelection over Mitt Romney in 2012.

It’s close to an iron rule in American politics: A first-term president almost always loses seats in Congress in his first midterm election. But this trend is not always fatal or even damaging to the man in the White House—especially as he looks to reelection two years later.

U.S. President Joe Biden is no doubt hoping for this outcome as he faces the likelihood of losing one or both chambers of Congress on Nov. 8. Beyond that, the specter of a possible rematch with his 2020 rival, former President Donald Trump, whom Biden soundly defeated but who continues to reject the outcome, looms just around the corner.

Biden has witnessed this model of political success up close, since he lived through it as Barack Obama’s vice president. In the 2010 midterms, two years after he was elected president, Obama got pummeled at the polls, losing the House and six seats in the Senate. But—in an early sign that all was not well with the Republican establishment—that outcome led to such serious infighting inside the Republican Party that Obama coasted to reelection over Mitt Romney in 2012.

Upon taking power in January 2011, the Republicans became the “party of no”—relentless obstructionists on every issue. For two years, the headlines were packed with stories about the nascent tea party—small-government zealots who opposed Obama’s health care reform and other big programs—defying the Republican establishment and threatening repeated government shutdowns, prompting then-Speaker of the House John Boehner to label them later as “idiots” and “anarchists.” Obama’s Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, successfully navigated a similar dynamic in 1996 and cruised to reelection by exploiting an earlier iteration of Republican extremism under right-wing  Speaker Newt Gingrich.

It remains unclear how much Republican infighting will occur leading up to 2024. But it could get very ugly if Republican rivals such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seek to stop Trump from again bidding for a second term. A new report indicates that DeSantis may be rethinking whether to take on Trump, and if he bows out other potential challengers might as well. But so many other Republicans have been mulling a run that the field could look even more crowded than in 2016, when Trump fended off 16 rivals, said Lara Brown, a political scientist and author of Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants.

“It’s easy to be united in opposition, but what we are likely to see after this election is many more fractures in the Republican Party,” Brown said. “If Trump manages to keep, say, 25 percent of Republicans who support him, then because of the winner-take-all rule in Republican primaries, you could have a situation where the Republican Party actually divides in half.”

Such a scenario could be especially hellish for the Republicans if, as looks increasingly likely, Trump is indicted on criminal charges then decides to run anyway, taking party hopes down with him. Trump faces criminal investigations into his alleged efforts to falsify election returns in Georgia; the grand jury hearing those charges is expected to wrap up no later than next spring. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland may follow up with other charges related to misuse of classified material and Trump’s alleged incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

No doubt the biggest threat to Biden’s prospects for reenacting the 2010-2012 script is the economy. While Obama was leading the nation out of the Great Recession into an economic renewal with very little inflation—and Clinton also benefited from a booming economy in 1996—Biden faces a widely expected recession in 2023 and perhaps beyond, as well as some of the worst inflation in four decades. The inflation issue, if it persists, promises to be a key Republican talking point in the next two years. Another issue that didn’t afflict Obama or Clinton will be Biden’s age; by the time the 2024 election comes around, he will be the oldest president, at 81, ever to run for reelection.

But in other areas, including foreign policy, even a Republican takeover of both the House and the Senate—the former is considered likely, the latter remains a cliffhanger—might not bedevil Biden too much. Biden has already achieved most of his big-ticket domestic agenda items, including his COVID stimulus, his Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and his $739 billion climate-focused Inflation Reduction Act. Current inflationary trends mean he’s not going to be able to spend a lot more money anyway.

When it comes to overseas issues, the president has already taken such a hard-line approach to both Russia and China, as well as Iran, that Republicans would be hard-pressed to out-hawk him—their wont with Democratic presidents almost since the Vietnam War. Since then, Republicans have often framed the Democratic Party as compliant and weak on threats overseas, while the Republicans have been viewed as the party of aggressive engagement.

Trump poleaxed that strategy with his neo-isolationist approach to the world, denouncing NATO and withdrawing from bipartisan pacts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move that undercut any effective U.S. effort to confront a rising China. Indeed, if Republicans take over the Senate as well as the House, Biden may face more pressure to ratchet down, not step up, overseas engagement—especially aid to Ukraine. Yet the president may be preempting that possibility already. Ukraine’s military has been pummeling the Russians in recent weeks, and Kyiv will get more aid, no doubt, but Biden probably plans to push that through the lame-duck session before the new Congress is sworn in next year.

True, a Republican takeover of both the Senate and House would unquestionably give Biden many headaches—including in foreign policy.

“A takeover of the House, which is all but certain, pretty much guarantees that we’re going to see investigations, investigations, and more investigations,” said Todd Belt, a George Washington University professor and the author of The Post-Heroic Presidency: Leveraged Leadership in an Age of Limits. “They’re going to investigate Biden himself and his son, Hunter. Especially Hunter’s activities in China.” During his presidency, Trump repeatedly accused Hunter Biden, without evidence, of making millions of dollars in a “payoff” from China. Those investigations, Belt continued, “could create some difficulties for the Biden administration in dealing with touchy issues such as Taiwan and the Uyghurs.”

Another major area of vulnerability for Biden is his precipitous and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. Although Biden was mainly following Trump’s lead, such an inconvenient detail is not likely to stop a Republican congressional investigation.

European allies are watching the Nov. 8 election warily as they continue to be divided on support for Ukraine. Aid to Ukraine from Europe, both financial and military, is flagging as winter approaches and the Ukrainians suffer under a Russian siege. Declining levels of European aid will almost certainly be an issue on Capitol Hill since Washington has provided Ukraine with almost twice as much military, financial, and humanitarian aid as all European Union countries and institutions combined, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. At more than $25 billion, U.S. military aid dwarfs that of the second-largest donor, the United Kingdom, while Germany has contributed just $1.16 billion in military aid.

“There’s a lot of hope in Europe that because support for Ukraine is a bipartisan issue, the midterms will have no impact. I think that hope might be naive,” said Liana Fix, a Europe specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. Republicans in power, she said, will no doubt reignite Trump’s accusations that Europe isn’t bearing enough of the costs of European defense. “The U.S. is the indispensable nation in this war, and Europeans are comfortable with leaning in instead of taking a greater share of responsibility. This will make it easy for Republicans to refer again to European free-riding and to criticize Biden for that,” Fix said.

On the paramount issue of China, Republican pressure may force Biden to keep in place most of the tariffs imposed by Trump, though he is considering lifting some of them. Republican demands that Biden take an even tougher approach to Beijing could rip the scab off what has been—at least since the Ukraine invasion and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s quasi-alliance with Russia—a tenuous transatlantic unity vis-a-vis China. Republican China hawks such as Sen. Josh Hawley will attack the United States’ allies for remaining too ambivalent, particularly as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wends a middle course. In October, Scholz welcomed a 25 percent Chinese investment in the port of Hamburg. He is visiting Beijing this week with a delegation of business leaders.

But Biden has built up a lot of political capital in Europe and will no doubt find a way to maintain strong alliances there. European governments are watching the U.S. midterms with “helpless nervousness,” said Sophia Besch, a fellow in the Europe program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. If U.S. engagement abroad falters under Republican opposition, especially on energy supplies, “we don’t really know what we’re going to do.”

But taking all that into consideration—and barring a serious recession that could negate many of these calculations—the politics of a Republican midterm victory may not be as grim as some expect for Biden. In what also looks like something of a replay of 2010, far-right Republican firebrands are now pledging to effectively become the “party of no” once again. Prodded by right-wing conspiracy mongers such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, a Republican House majority might even try to impeach Biden as payback for the two impeachments of Trump. “I do think there’s a chance of that, whether it’s justified or not,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz—another likely presidential contender—said in a new episode of his podcast. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

The newly empowered Republicans will also do their best to roll back Biden’s achievements. In an interview with Breitbart, Rep. Kevin McCarthy—who is likely to be the next speaker of the House in 2023—said that House Republicans’ top economic priority is to repeal Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. Republicans are unlikely to have nearly enough votes for that, especially in the Senate. The White House, along with many economists, responded that McCarthy’s promise to cut taxes on big business and wealthy individuals would likely only worsen inflation.

The Republicans launched similar extremist approaches against Obama. In 2010, then-and-possibly-future Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell openly said that his main goal was not to legislate but to prevent Obama’s reelection. That approach blew up in the Republicans’ faces as they obstructed nearly every Obama initiative. Rep. Darrell Issa, then-chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, desperately sought to get Obama impeached, failing every time and turning up no evidence of corruption despite Issa’s promises to do so. All that overreaching cost the Republicans dearly with independent voters at the polls in 2012.

It’s not unreasonable to expect an analogous outcome this time. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, the fiery Freedom Caucus Trump supporter who may chair the House Judiciary Committee under a Republican majority, could prove to be the new Issa, promising much and delivering little. McCarthy, the expected new speaker, may have little choice but to go along.

“It’s going to be even more difficult for McCarthy than it was for Boehner,” said Brown. “Boehner had a lot more traditional Republicans who were incumbents in his caucus.”

Added Belt: “The big question will be who the people will blame for inaction. The Republicans could force a government shutdown over budget issues, but that hasn’t worked too well for them in the past. So they are in danger of looking again like either the ‘party of no’ or the ‘party of no ideas.’”

The 2010 election is also relevant today because it set the stage for the shocking developments six years later, when it became clear that the Republican Party never really regained its footing after 2012, or its self-identity. Or even a coherent agenda. That helps explain how Trump, a never-elected newcomer, was able to destroy 16 other long-established Republican candidates in the primaries. Romney—who later emerged, as a senator from Utah, as one of the few Republican voices against Trump—is likely to be the last mainstream Republican to vie successfully for the party’s presidential nomination for a long time to come.

Trump also handily absorbed what was left of the tea party movement into his own “Make America Great Again,” or MAGA, base, demonstrating that small government was not as much the tea party’s concern as was racial redistribution—in other words, a white-ethnic grievance politics. This was a key part of Trump’s anti-immigration platform. But the fact of a shrinking white majority plays to Democrats’ strengths, despite desperate Republican attempts to gerrymander districts and throw up other blocks to nonwhite voters.

In the 2012 presidential election, the Republican Party’s right wing forced the once-moderate Romney to move sharply rightward, renouncing most of his record as a state governor—including a health care plan that later became a model for Obama’s Affordable Care Act. “I’m severely conservative,” Romney notoriously claimed at one point, drawing mockery from many Republicans. He never recovered from his numerous flip-flops.

Heading into 2024, everyone in the Republican Party who wants to take on Trump could be forced to tack Trump-ward—and even further to the right than Romney went. This could well redound to Biden’s credit if he decides to run for reelection.

Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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