The surprising results of the midterm elections were understandably received by Democrats with an elated mix of relief and vindication. A president’s party normally does much worse in his first midterms, and polls suggested this time would be no different.
But just because a catastrophe was averted does not mean all is well. Democrats would be sorely mistaken to assume that a durable majority of voters endorsed their agenda in this election — and such a mistake could prove costly in 2024 and beyond.
We know the Democrats risk such a misreading because it is just what they did after the last election. In 2020, Democrats highlighted the repugnant tone and character of the Donald Trump-era G.O.P. while Republicans highlighted radical elements of the Democrats’ agenda — and the public essentially said no to both. Voters narrowly threw out Mr. Trump but gave Democrats the thinnest possible Senate majority while slightly increasing the number of Republicans in the House.
Democrats responded by behaving as though they had won a mandate, trying to advance an ambitious partisan agenda without the majorities to do it — and so generally without success.
Republicans, too, responded to the rebuke they received by pretending it didn’t happen, with many advancing delusional conspiracy theories about a stolen election and doubling down on the very Trumpism voters had just rejected.
The 2022 election was therefore basically a rerun of 2020. Voters made the same grudging choice — they rejected the Trumpist style and substance of the G.O.P. but without embracing the Democrats — because they were given the same unappetizing menu. Democrats netted one Senate seat at most, in a state where the Republican candidate particularly resembled Mr. Trump, while again losing a small handful of House seats.
Such a rerun can easily look like an endorsement of the status quo. This is apparently how President Biden interpreted it. In his postelection news conference, he was asked what he would do differently in light of what the results showed about voter desires. He answered: “Nothing, because they’re just finding out what we’re doing. The more they know about what we’re doing, the more support there is.”
Democrats should be alarmed by these embarrassing remarks, but so far they seem to share the sentiment.
Acting on the lesson of the election would be tough for them, to be sure. It’s pretty clear what Republicans are doing wrong and what their way forward might look like. As this election demonstrated yet again, swing voters do exist, and they are open to voting for Republicans, including quite conservative ones, but they do not like Trumpism. Republicans clearly need to put Mr. Trump and his style of politics behind them. Now that he has announced another run for the presidency, that won’t be easy to do, but it is easy to see that it is what needs doing.
For Democrats, the path to winning swing voters is much harder to see. Republicans have moved closer to some of the median voter’s policy inclinations in the Trump era, even as Mr. Trump’s behavior turned off those voters. A decade ago, the G.O.P. was too libertarian for many winnable voters — on public spending and taxes but also on immigration, trade and family policy. The party is more palatable for such voters on those issues now. That might explain why it looks as though Republicans won a majority of the votes for House seats nationwide in this election, edging Democrats by around three or four percentage points.
Democrats are generally farther from the median voter than they were a decade ago, particularly on cultural issues, education, crime and immigration. The party increasingly represents an unpopular cultural elite, and the agenda required to hold its coalition together makes for poor general-election strategy in many places.
For all that the Democrats averted defeat this year, some warning signs that they were beginning to perceive were only reinforced. Even in many places where Trumpism hurt Republican candidates (at least in part), like Ohio and North Carolina, support for Democrats among working-class swing voters clearly has low ceilings. Their standing with Hispanic working-class voters is precarious at best, and success in Texas or Florida, recently imaginable, now looks to be increasingly slipping out of reach.
Democrats also face a very challenging Senate map in 2024. They will have to defend 23 seats, quite a few in right-leaning states like Montana and Ohio, while Republicans defend just 10. Given that they will start out nearly tied, Republicans are almost certain to win a Senate majority that year. This means, at the very least, that Democrats would be mad to push for eliminating the filibuster in the next Congress, as they repeatedly did over the past two years. But it also means that they need to be preparing the ground for a more moderate agenda to minimize their losses.
They should look to the kinds of legislation advanced through bipartisan negotiations in this Congress but mostly absent from their election pitches — on infrastructure, manufacturing and guns. If instead Democrats double down on their activists’ agenda or conclude from this election that the public wants permissive abortion laws everywhere, they will pay a heavy price, and will deserve to — particularly if Republicans do learn their lesson and begin to put Trumpism behind them.
The election actually provided models for both parties in the states. For Republicans, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s smashing re-election victory in Florida should offer real hope. Mr. DeSantis not only defeated his Democratic opponent by 20 points but also won Mr. Trump’s own vote in Florida while Mr. Trump was calling him names — which is roughly the magic act that the party’s next leader will need to pull off. For Democrats, an analogous figure may be Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado, who also won a huge re-election victory. Mr. Polis’s biography and disposition are a good fit for the party’s activist base, but his style of governance is decidedly centrist, which is the mix Democrats will need to compete against a post-Trump G.O.P.
If the parties were up to their jobs, the 2024 presidential election might look like a race between two such savvy, effective governors, both in their 40s yet already proven executives. But if both parties refuse to learn from this election, that race might be a rematch between an 81-year-old and a 78-year-old who embody a set of options voters have now repeatedly rejected.
If one party can learn its lesson while the other doesn’t, it could find itself with an extraordinary opportunity to break out of our age of deadlock with a real majority. But that would require understanding the 2022 midterms as a loss — which, much as Democrats might hate to hear it, Republicans are better positioned to do.
Yuval Levin, a contributing Opinion writer, is the editor of National Affairs and the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American dream.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.