Mar 1, 2022

The 2022 midterms begin (yes, really).

The 2022 midterms begin (yes, really).

Plus, I answer a question about managing anxiety and stress when consuming the news.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

The 2022 midterms, another Ukraine-Russia update, and I answer a reader question about managing anxiety while consuming the news.

Photo: Gage Skidmore
Photo: Gage Skidmore

Ukraine-Russia update.

Russia intensified its attacks on Ukraine yesterday, with numerous rockets launched at major cities. Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, was hit by a missile in its central square. Satellite images have also shown a 40-mile long Russian military convoy headed toward Kyiv, the capital. Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia completed a first round of peace talks and agreed to meet again, though there were no breakthroughs. Ukraine's President Zelensky also formally requested to join the European Union. Some other notes:

  • Ukraine is offering amnesty and money to Russian soldiers who surrender.
  • This is a map of the U.S. states most interested (measured by Google searches) in the Ukraine conflict.
  • Ukraine's ambassador to the U.N. read text messages that a Russian soldier purportedly sent to his mom saying he was scared and that they were targeting civilians.
  • The European Union disconnected Russian banks from The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT).
  • African, Asian and Caribbean citizens fleeing Ukraine say they are experiencing discrimination at the border of Poland.

Quick hits.

  1. President Biden will deliver his first State of the Union address tonight at 9 p.m. EST. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will deliver the Republican response. (The address)
  2. The Supreme Court heard arguments in a challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate carbon emissions. (The case)
  3. The House overwhelmingly passed an anti-lynching bill yesterday, officially designating lynching as a hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison. (The bill)
  4. Rep. Fred Keller (R-PA) announced he was retiring yesterday (The Keller announcement). Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) also announced he was retiring to lead the American Jewish Committee (The Deutch announcement).
  5. The Senate failed to advance the Women's Health Protection Act, which would have codified the right to an abortion guaranteed in Roe v. Wade. The bill failed 46-48 on a vote to advance it to debate, with six senators not voting or not present. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) joined every present Republican in opposing the bill. (The vote)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

The 2022 midterms. Yes, it's that time again. The state of Texas, which will be critical for House majorities and gauging the temperature of the country, will kick off voting today, March 1st, 2022, with a primary race. And early voting will soon be underway in several other states, too.

This year, the midterms could re-shape the future of the country — and potentially stop President Joe Biden's agenda in its tracks. Since World War II, the average midterm loss for a president's party in the House is 26 seats. Democrats currently enjoy an 11-seat majority at 222-211. In the Senate, the upper chamber, the parties are split 50-50, and Vice President Kamala Harris has acted as a critical tie breaking vote much as Vice President Mike Pence did during former President Donald Trump's term.

At the one year mark, President Biden had the second-lowest approval rating of any recent president. Today, President Biden's approval ratings are underwater, though there are some signs they've ticked up slightly. FiveThirtyEight has an average of polls at 53.3% disapprove to 40.7% approve. Some prominent pollsters, like Quinnipiac, have Biden's approval rating as low as 35%. Over the weekend, ABC-Washington Post released a poll that had Biden's at just 37%, the lowest point of his presidency. The president's approval rating is often correlated strongly to his party's performance in the midterms, which spells trouble for Democrats.

Along with the battles for the House and Senate, and seeing the nation's mood on the two major national parties, there are other subplots to keep an eye on: Will Trump-backed candidates prevail in their primary and general election races? Will progressives or more moderate Democrats be the favorites of their voters? How will gerrymandering and new voting laws impact turnout and voter participation? One of the turning points in Biden's approval rating was the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Which way will the conflict in Ukraine move voters' opinions?

Obviously, we'll be covering the midterms a lot over the next nine months, but we figured — with the first voting in primary races already here — we'd set the table now and come back to this a few more times over the next nine months.

Below, we'll take a look at some commentary from the left and right, and then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • The right says Democrats are going to get blown out, and they should.
  • They point to Biden's bad polling numbers and a disconnect from issues Democrats care about.
  • They emphasize the opportunity Republicans have to take a strong majority in Congress.

In The Washington Post, Henry Olsen said that based on the 2021 results in New Jersey and Virginia, along with Biden's poll numbers, it could be a "bloodbath."

"Democrats would suffer massive losses if the 2021 trend is replicated in 2022," he wrote. "Suppose Biden’s net job approval rating is still negative 8 points on election day, resulting in the same 12.5 shift from 2020 that we saw in November. Democrats hold 29 House seats at or below that threshold in states that have completed redistricting. With nearly 40 percent of the chamber’s 435 districts left to be drawn, 10 to 20 more seats will also be below that threshold when all the maps are final. That means Republicans would likely pick up the overwhelming majority of those seats, potentially netting a 35-seat gain, which would give them their biggest majority since the Great Depression.

"And it could be even worse. Biden currently has a negative 14.4-point job approval rating on the RealClearPolitics average, a massive 18.9-point shift from 2020," Olsen added. "If the 2021 trend holds firm and Biden doesn’t improve those numbers — and historical analysis from Inside Elections guru Nathan L. Gonzales suggests that’s unlikely — every Democrat in a district or state that he won by less than that amount could be seriously threatened. That includes seven Democratic senators up for reelection in 2022 — including Colorado’s Michael F. Bennet and Oregon’s Ron Wyden. Even Washington’s Patty Murray, already facing a well-funded challenger in Republican Tiffany Smiley, hails from a state Biden won by a bit more than 19 points. A 2021-style clean sweep on current polling data would give the GOP 57 Senate seats, more than any time since after the 1920 election. House Democrats could be looking at a loss of 60 members or more."

Karl Rove said Biden is going to suffer a "whopping" this fall and it's his own fault.

"Caught up in the hype, Mr. Biden threw his weight behind the proposed Build Back Better Act to transform fundamentally America’s economy and climate policy, and joined the push for a federal takeover of local elections," Rove wrote. "The problem is that Americans are generally not fond of transformation, except for a few exceptional moments in our history. This isn’t one of them. Most times, Americans like changes to be incremental and, if they’re truly significant, approved by commanding congressional margins and strong bipartisan support. Mr. Biden had neither.

"The more he pushed for transformational change while holding a razor-thin House margin and a 50-50 Senate, the more negative public opinion grew," Rove added. "This happened in part because he hasn’t focused on problems that ordinary Americans face. He wanted a smorgasbord of new welfare benefits in Build Back Better, few of which would help voters worried that prices were growing at the grocery store and gas pump much faster than their paychecks. And a federal takeover of elections is not as high a priority as jobs and wages... On Covid, Mr. Biden overpromised by predicting its end by July 4 and underdelivered when Omicron spiked this winter."

Alexandra DeSanctis said the signs of a landslide are everywhere — even in local races — and run all the way to the top.

"Democrats at the national level also don’t appear to have much of a clue as to how to stave off a massive defeat," she wrote. "The New York Times has a story this morning on how Democrats are gearing up for a campaign to add generous Covid paid sick leave to the upcoming spending bill. A critic might say that this is simply the first small step toward making such a program permanent for illnesses other than Covid, a program Democrats have been demanding for quite some time.

"Last week, meanwhile, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) made the first moves toward a vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act, a radical pro-abortion bill that has no chance of getting the necessary 60 votes to pass," she added. "Putting his caucus on record in support of an extreme bill — one that would invalidate nearly every pro-life law in states across the country — that can’t even pass is quite a move ahead of a difficult midterm battle."


What the left is saying.

  • The left is divided on who to blame, but agrees something needs to change.
  • Some point to the politics of "The Squad."
  • Others blame moderates for halting Biden's agenda.

In USA Today, Jill Lawrence urged Democrats to abandon identity politics.

"Fortunately, there is a spate of research on how Democrats should campaign this year. And even more fortunately, from the self-described socialist magazine Jacobin to the center-left Third Way think tank, the conclusions are the same: Stop with the identity politics, the politically correct language, the callouts to specific groups, the explicit targeting that suggests one race or type of person will benefit. Craft a simple, inclusive economic message that cuts across differences and appeals to all.

"Jacobin surveyed 2,000 working-class voters in five swing states and found, among other things, that they prefer candidates with working-class backgrounds who talk in broad, relatable terms about jobs, health care and the economy – and that identity-politics jargon turns them off," she wrote. "Third Way, in focus groups with Virginia voters who chose Biden for president in 2020 and voted for or seriously considered Republican Glenn Youngkin for governor in 2021, found that these voters associated Democrats with “breaking down social barriers facing marginalized groups” – not helping working people, the middle class or people like them... their dominant message, from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and House moderates to smart progressives to Biden, should be universal, pointed and, advises message guru Anat Shenker-Osorio, rooted in lived experience instead of dry policy."

In The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie said the problems Democrats have "are bigger than the Squad."

"The milquetoast politics of moderate and conservative Democrats in Congress are backfiring big time on their party and threatening its hold on power before the midterm elections," Bouie said, pointing to moderate Democrats who refused to pass Biden's reconciliation bill. "If there was one goal in mind among the moderates and conservatives who froze the Democratic Party’s agenda in place, it was to pass their priorities in law while distancing themselves from their progressive colleagues. What happened, instead, is that they weakened Democrats across the board, as candidates struggled to overcome a sense of failure that had settled over the party.

“Nor have moderate and conservative Democrats tried to devise an agenda of their own,” he added. “Instead, they’ve used their remaining political capital to kill the most popular items on the Democratic Party wish list, from tax hikes on the richest Americans and an increase in the minimum wage to a plan for price controls on prescription drugs. They couldn’t even be bothered to save the revamped child tax credit, one of the most effective antipoverty measures since at least the Great Society. Its expiration in December pushed millions of children back under the poverty line. Now, having immobilized the president’s agenda and plunged their party into disarray, the same Democrats are casting around for someone to blame. Not surprisingly, they’ve settled on their progressive colleagues.”

In Slate, Jim Newell wrote about why Mitch McConnell has no intention of releasing an agenda for Senate Republicans — and how Sen. Rick Scott showed why when he released his own.

"The document is largely a compilation of culture war grievances. An introductory slide titled 'THE HOUR IS LATE IN AMERICA,'  backgrounded by a photo of a burning Constitution, speaks of how 'we are allowing biological males to destroy women’s sports,' for example. But wedged between the cultural huffing and snorting, there are some policy prescriptions that you might hear about for the rest of the campaign cycle—in attacks from Democrats. Near the end of the Economy/Growth section, for example, there’s a call to raise taxes on half of the country. 'All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount,' it reads. 'Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax.'

"There’s also a call to ‘prohibit debt ceiling increases absent a declaration of war.’ So it’s a call to default on the federal debt, which isn’t good for the economy. Or—and this would be the more fun read—he’s saying that in order to get his vote on a necessary debt ceiling increase, he’s first going to need to see that declaration of war. The document also includes a call to finish the border wall 'and name it after President Donald Trump'—in what might be a delicate way to dangle the gold watch and hope Trump doesn’t run again. It calls for 12-year term limits for both members of Congress and 'government bureaucrats'—a plan to further cap policymaking expertise and outsource it to the private sector. And Scott proposes sunsetting 'all federal legislation' in five years, because 'if a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.'"


My take.

I think Oliver Knox summarized the bind Democrats are in well by trying to pin down their current strategy: "Support progressive policies! No, tack moderate! Ignore the GOP 'culture war' chaff! No, hit back! Show empathy! For pete’s sake, give voters a villain to blame! Forget former president Donald Trump! No, put him (metaphorically) on the ballot!"

Thoughts about what Democrats should change are everywhere and nobody seems to agree on them. My fundamental view is that Democrats have left a major void on some of the culture war issues — from trans swimmers to critical race theory — that they need to fill with their own smart messaging. Even "defund the police" is salvageable for some voters. Jill Lawrence's excellent piece on Democratic messaging suggested "fully-funded public safety." Democrats should hire her.

But this issue isn't just a messaging problem. Yes, Democrats’ proclivity for identity politics, shaming people and political correctness is hurting them with working class voters. It's also just been a really rough first year: Omicron, inflation, gas prices, Afghanistan, and now a full-on war in Europe.

The obvious point here is that Democrats are in a world of trouble. The polling they are facing would be bad enough news at any point in a presidency, but it's significantly worse given the bias against Republicans recent polls have shown (meaning the true sentiment could be even worse than what we're seeing now). That — paired with the fact that it feels as if World War III is around the corner, inflation is still getting worse, and they already have thin majorities in the House and Senate —makes this something of a potential calamity for the party.

And guess what? They're not helping themselves. At a time when unity should be at a premium, Rep. Rashida Tlaib has made the decision to deliver a response to President Biden's State of the Union address tonight. Yes, a member of the Democratic party is going to deliver a response to a Democratic president. This means that shortly after Biden speaks, voters will hear two competing and critical messages: One from the progressive wing hammering corporate Democrats and a stalled agenda, and one from Iowa's Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds warning that Democrats have been captured by the far-left.

It's the fifth time the Working Families Party has given a formal response to a president's address before Congress (Rep. Jamaal Bowman delivered one last year) but it is a good indication of where things stand.

It is also the kind of friendly fire from progressives that infuriates more "moderate" or "traditional" Democrats these days. But don't get it twisted: Biden's poll numbers aren't the fault of "The Squad." He ran on a set of promises and he got more support for those promises from the progressive wing of the party than he did from moderates, and obviously more than he did from Sens. Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema. His administration has failed in delivering a unified message or a celebration of what he has done. And I actually agree with Bouie that, if you look at Biden's presidency and see a stalled agenda, the fault really should lie with moderates who very openly broke their promises about how they would pass that agenda.

It's also easy to focus on the party in power right now, but worth remembering Republicans have plenty of their own issues to work out. They had two members show up at a literal white nationalist conference this week. They have a very loud and disobedient former president still lying about the 2020 election being stolen. They have Trump-endorsed candidates dropping into Republican primary races across the country. And they have Senate leaders like Rick Scott apparently antsy to release a "Republican agenda," one that would be far less popular than the current agenda they are executing (which is about containing and obstructing Democrats). So there is plenty to watch there.

Spare a thought for Texas, too. If Cook Political's report on competitive congressional districts is to be believed, today's primary races will effectively determine the outcome of 36 out of 38 races, thanks to rabid partisanship and gerrymandering. Yes, you should still vote. But the primary season is starting off with a nice reminder of how divided our politics are in a state where many voters will not have their voices properly represented.

We're still nine months from November, when the crucial general elections will take place, and a lot can happen in that time. I've long emphasized the meaninglessness of making election predictions six weeks out, let alone nine months. But the gap is so wide here that Democrats will need to course-correct now, not later, if they want a shot at holding a majority in either chamber.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

Q: You’ve been covering politics during an unprecedented time in history. There’s a global pandemic, American democracy is being undermined, and at times it has felt like there’s a non-zero chance that one or both of civil war or World War III could break out. American global leadership is being challenged if it’s not in full decline. So… does it give you anxiety engaging with these high-stakes issues on a daily basis? And if so, how do you deal with that anxiety?

— Tyler, Brooklyn, NY

Tangle: Yes. It does. I don't talk about this often, for reasons that will become obvious in a second, but it's a battle I am only just recently learning how to win.

Four years ago I started getting stress-induced heart palpitations that would keep me up through the night. I've had face twitches or eye twitches that I told myself were because I was dehydrated. I've been so overrun and moving so fast that I had to repair pretty serious damage I did to my relationships with my wife and my friends. Even this last week, I caught myself looking up at the sky as I walked around in New York City, as if I somehow expected a fighter jet to pass overhead after a week straight of consuming war content. At Shabbat services on Friday night, I broke down in tears as the congregation sang a song written hundreds of years ago in Odessa, Ukraine. Work like this seeps into my personal life sometimes.

Addressing it takes intent and discipline, and I've gotten a lot better at it. Just last month, I finally got off the beta blocker medicine I was taking to address the heart palpitations. The journey to get there was holistic: I went to therapy. I started meditating and doing breathing exercises. I exercise every day. I instituted strict hours for news consumption (I usually stop around 6:30 p.m., unless a major story breaks). No cell phone in the bedroom (ever). I get 7-8 hours of sleep no matter what, and I go to bed early with a book. I ensure the first light I see in the morning is natural (looking outside), not my phone. Sometimes I try to read from a book before I read anything on a screen (a book of poetry is a nice touch), though that habit has proved harder to develop. I have a timer that goes off on my computer every 20 minutes reminding me to stand up, walk around and take a quick break.

I also log off from sundown Friday night until sundown Saturday night — or sometimes even Sunday afternoon — in observance of Shabbat. And I mean really log off — no social media, no news, and sometimes even a refusal to talk about politics. I break it, occasionally, but my wife usually calls me out or I catch myself and drop out on my own. I say a prayer every morning, wishing for some good health for my family and friends and a more organized and just world. I make it a point to express gratitude (out loud, like really say it!) for the incredible job I have and the life I lead, basically every day.

I also take breaks. I prioritize family time and the “real world,” especially around the holidays. Tangle observes every bank holiday and I regularly give myself a few days or a week off for vacation. When I do take those breaks, you may have noticed I encourage readers to take a break from the news, too. I think this is critical. Doing my work, like being an informed citizen, is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to work hard and expend a lot of energy, but you also need to take breaks, drink lots of water and remember the finish line is a long way off. I would never last if I didn’t do this stuff, and my intent is to last.

Oh, and I always remember to take a look at the good news, too (hence our "Have a nice day" section every day).

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Reminder.

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We are hoping to do some good with our platform this week, so we're committing to donating half of all new subscriptions and tips to this GoFundMe page for Ukrainian news outlets.

You can subscribe to Tangle here, gift a subscription here, or donate here. You can give directly to those news outlets here.

A story that matters.

Today, members of the European Parliament were warned that the conflict in Ukraine would disrupt the global food supply. Combined, Russia and Ukraine account for 26% of the world's wheat supply and 24% of its barley supply. They also export 57% of the world's sunflower seeds, safflower and cottonseed oil, as well as 14% of the world's corn, all of which are critical for feeding humans and animals. Global food prices are already at their highest levels since 2011 thanks to pandemic-related supply chain issues and increasingly volatile climate conditions like droughts and heavy rainfall. Vox has an explainer.


Numbers.

  • 6 in 10. The number of Americans who report hardships related to inflation.
  • 30%. The percentage of political independents who say they approve of Biden, according to a recent ABC-Washington Post poll.
  • 19%. The percentage of Democrats who say they disapprove of Biden, according to the same poll.
  • 54-41. Among registered voters who say they are certain to vote in November, the support for Republican congressional candidates over Democrats.
  • 75%. The percentage of Americans who rate the economy's condition as not so good or poor, the highest since 2013.

Have a nice day.

I know that how to address climate change can be a divisive conversation, but I think at the very least we can all agree that plastic pollution sucks. Each year, some 11 million tons of plastic waste enters the ocean — the equivalent of a cargo ship full every day. Now, 193 countries are beginning negotiations on a plan to hammer out a global treaty to help curb plastic pollution. A proposal is already out that would have nations adopt action plans, set binding waste reduction targets, and establish monitoring systems and a new global scientific advisory body. Even better, the treaty attempts to target not just plastic waste clean-up, but plastic waste prevention. Science.org has the story.


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