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Well, that got their attention.

Stunned by the defeat of a mainstream political figure in the Virginia gubernatorial race, shocked by the slim margin of victory in the New Jersey contest, scared about their own prospects in next year’s midterm congressional elections and stricken with fear about the possible return of Donald Trump to the White House, Democrats are scrambling to recover from a devastating off-year election performance even as they engage in one of their periodic episodes of self-examination – and self-recrimination.

Neither process is pretty.

But then again, the conditions that led to the failure of former governor Terry McAuliffe to retain his position in Virginia, where Joe Biden built a 10-percentage-point bulge in 2020, and the bare survival of Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey, where Mr. Biden prevailed by a huge, 16-point margin only 12 months ago, were not pretty either. A President perceived as feckless, a Democratic-controlled Congress bogged down by bitter disputes about taxes and spending, and a desperate but futile effort to exploit the character flaws of a former president who had been repudiated by voters and removed from the public conversation by the media bosses of the era combined to produce a Democratic debacle.

The result was a rush at week’s end on Capitol Hill to move legislation that would both change the subject and change the nature of many elements of contemporary life, from the streets and bridges Americans use and the tax forms they complete each April to the prekindergarten programs they send their children to and the carbon emissions they produce.

Changing the subject is vital. Americans in recent days have been subjected to a barrage of broadcast, press and social-media commentary describing the Democrats as mired in dissent and in descent. The party both holds power in the White House and Congress and is held hostage by warring factions within its caucuses. The infrastructure bill that Democrats have debated, and changed, and then revised again before approving it on Friday night, is full of the sort of goodies politicians love to provide to the public, and yet struggles between progressives and more conservative-oriented lawmakers have paralyzed Capitol Hill.

It is as if Santa were stalled at the mouth of the chimney while the children at the fireplace below sit aching for their gifts – an apt simile, given the delay in the delivery of Christmas gift items to stores, a supply-chain crunch that Mr. Biden already regards as yet another political peril.

“The elections crystallized the acute problem the Democrats face, which is that they cannot go home empty-handed and expect to get re-elected,” said Sarah Binder, a George Washington University expert on Congress. “They’ve been at this for nine or 10 months. Right now they feel there is a sense of urgency. But they need all 50 votes in the Senate, and that hasn’t been easy.”

In short, what Thomas Jefferson once described as “the endless quibbles, chicaneries, vexations, and delays of lawyers and demi-lawyers” that characterize life in an American legislature have contributed to the sense that the Democrats, once regarded as the natural party of government, simply cannot govern in the modern age.

That notion, which has been germinating for weeks and which coloured the campaigns in both Virginia and New Jersey, prevented Democratic candidates from pointing to party successes while they hold power, from promising more such achievements and from suggesting that Biden-era Democrats are possessed of a surfeit of confidence and competence.

The Democrats also were hampered by fears of inflation, which, despite a stock market at historic highs, remains a threat, especially in the energy and food sectors; spring wheat prices are now double their 2020 levels, suggesting fresh increases in prices at the supermarket. The major contention in Virginia was over the extent of control parents should have over the schooling of their children, an area where Republican Glenn Youngkin won early credibility and late votes.

Here was a major miscalculation on the Democrats’ part. They thought the education issue that pollsters told them was a leading one for voters was a matter of teacher pay and pedagogical excellence, two standard themes in their rhetorical repertoire. They ignored one of the signature elements of contemporary American life: Parents have been working at home and watching their children’s education on Zoom and other media with the kind of focus they never could have had just two years ago – and in many cases were troubled by what they saw.

The results in Virginia, where Mr. Youngkin won the governor’s race and where the Republicans likely will capture a majority in the state legislature, received the most attention. But in some ways the Democratic win in New Jersey provided a more bracing alarm.

Political professionals expected Mr. Murphy to claim a double-digit victory. Mr. Trump was not a presence in the Garden State contest, neither in person nor in the debate. School issues were not predominant. And yet there was a swing of 14 percentage points against the Democrats in the course of a year. At the same time, the second-most powerful figure in New Jersey, Senate President Steve Sweeney, was defeated by a commercial truck driver with no political experience and whose entire campaign expenditure was less than the cost of a pair of men’s waterproof Sorel boots at the Bay right now.

Responding to the gathering storm, Democratic lawmakers this week added a US$200-billion provision for paid leave for workers who are sick, are new parents or are caring for ailing family members. They also inserted into legislation a large increase in the amount of state and local taxes that Americans can deduct in their federal tax filings. Mr. Trump’s tax law set a limit of $10,000, which tended to punish people who live in high-tax states, most of which are considered Democratic strongholds. The measure the House Democrats added to their legislation this week increases that limit to $80,000. The state with the highest state and local taxes? New Jersey.

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