One striking phenomenon that has surfaced since Joe Biden took office is the contrast between the audacious legislative agenda that the new president and his congressional allies are implacably advancing and the anxiety that so many of them (but decidedly not Biden himself) are expressing about their narrow escape from defeat in 2020 and the probable rough electoral sledding ahead. Even as Congress accomplishes things unimaginable in the Obama administration, Democrats keep fretting about the lost opportunities that the expected 2020 landslide could have given them, the traction that many fear Republicans are obtaining with their anti-wokeness crusade, and the baleful history of midterm elections that have shattered the plans of new administrations.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Punchbowl he figures there is a direct connection between the political anxieties of congressional Democrats and their audacious legislative agenda:
Majorities are not given, they are earned. This is not like 1994 and 2010 …
[Y]ou had to win 40 seats in 2010 … I think everybody knows the majority is in play. So the reason why it’s different, the majority is in play. In ’94 and 2010, at the beginning of those years, they didn’t believe the majority was at play in the nation. I believe it is, and the Democrats, I think, believe it is too; that’s why they’re going so far left, knowing that they’re gonna lose it.
So basically, McCarthy is charging that Democrats are shooting for the moon in 2021 because they understand that their governing trifecta is fragile and will likely end in 2022. It’s a hostile, self-serving hypothesis but nonetheless worth considering.
Any governing party implicitly has to balance, if not choose between, the goals of implementing its desired policies and of sustaining its power by positioning itself to win future elections. Ideally, of course, such parties hope their legislative priorities are popular enough to serve as a future campaign platform. Democrats who understand how ambitious their current legislative agenda is are particularly encouraged that it is polling well so far. And as New York’s Jonathan Chait has observed, Biden himself has adopted a presidential style that downplays the audacity of the legislation he is promoting, which helps get it enacted while giving the opposition fewer ripe targets.
But at some point very soon, Democrats may no longer be able to avoid a choice between accomplishments and political sustainability. Even if they are able to keep big policy proposals on issues like climate change, police reform, or housing supply from becoming politically fraught right away, they must take into account how they may play into Republican messaging on “socialism,” “wokeness,” or “class warfare.” Do they hold back on legislative audacity, then, in order to maximize the odds of hanging on to Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024? Or do they move ahead as quickly and ambitiously as they can and hope for the best? I’d offer four pretty compelling reasons for continuing to shoot for the moon.
Democrats’ power is too fragile to protect, so they may as well use it
Thanks to where 2020 left Democrats in Congress, a screeching halt to their legislative progress is no further away than an unexpected death or the resignation of a single senator, a decision by one senator that “going rogue” is in her or his self-interest, or an adverse ruling by the unelected Senate parliamentarian on the ability of Democrats to move a major item via the budget-reconciliation process (as has already happened on the $15 mimimum wage and will probably happen soon on immigration reform). Enacting as much legislation as possible before any of those setbacks occurs could be critical, justifying any and all political risks.
Similarly, the Democratic margin in the House is so small that it may be impossible to sustain against the overwhelming historical precedent of midterm losses by the party controlling the White House — especially since Republicans will have the upper hand in the decennial redistricting process, which is about to get under way.
If the Democratic trifecta is too weak to rely upon or is doomed anyway, why not get as much done as possible and hope for good luck in 2022 and 2024 and perhaps even better luck down the road?
Partisan polarization has made moderation meaningless
The idea that pulling legislative punches will improve future electoral outcomes may be a vestige of a bygone era of swing-voter hegemony and plausible bipartisanship. It’s not clear exactly who in the electorate will award Democrats for “moderation” in fully pursuing their policy goals. To put it another way, no matter what Biden and congressional Democrats do, McCarthy and the conservative-media machine are going to accuse them of “going so far left.” That was the great lesson of the Obama administration, in which every conciliatory gesture simply gave the GOP incentives to radicalize its demands and ramp up the volume of its protests against alleged Democratic extremism.
It also offers an alternative interpretation of the relative disappointment of Democratic underachievement in 2020. Instead of neurotically looking around to see which “woke” or “socialist” pol gave Republicans the opportunity to shriek about the terrible consequences of Democratic power, as many Democrats are doing now, it may make more sense to recognize that the Donkey Party can do nothing short of surrender that would undermine such messaging. The Republican base is clearly in a state of cultural panic that has little to do with the specter of the Green New Deal or the Iran nuclear pact or anything else Democrats say or do. Sure, Democrats can try to lower the temperature of political conflict as their chill president is doing, but they may as well use their current leverage as not. Joe Manchin will ensure that they don’t go hog wild.
America’s current condition demands, and will reward, bold policies — particularly after the Trump presidency
Intense partisan polarization isn’t the only feature of the contemporary political landscape that makes caution inadvisable for Democrats. Quite obviously, the coronavirus pandemic and its economic and social by-products built a highly conducive atmosphere for the Biden administration’s first bold and theoretically risky venture, the American Rescue Plan. And even if the sense of emergency fades and Biden-esque “normalcy” begins to reign, there could be a significant residual appetite within and beyond the Democratic Party for legislative activism after four years in which the GOP lost its already minimal interest in solving problems through public policy and submitted itself to the chaotic, often pointless rage-based leadership of Donald Trump.
There’s a lot to get done, and, among those who aren’t fantasizing about a vengeful comeback for the 45th president, there’s just one party offering much of anything. Scary as “socialism” seems to many Americans, nihilism is scarier yet.
Some legislative goals are conditions precedent for future political success
As Ron Brownstein has convincingly argued, some form of voting-rights legislation may no longer be optional for Democrats if they want to remain politically viable in the short-term and long-range future:
If Democrats lose their slim majority in either congressional chamber next year, they will lose their ability to pass voting-rights reform. After that, the party could face a debilitating dynamic: Republicans could use their state-level power to continue limiting ballot access, which would make regaining control of the House or the Senate more difficult for Democrats — and thus prevent them from passing future national voting rules that override the exclusionary state laws.
It’s pretty clear Republicans understand that the power to limit ballot access for Democratic constituencies is something they need to exploit to the fullest right now. If Democrats demur from pursuing every avenue to preempt Republican voter suppression via federal legislation on grounds that it’s too “partisan,” the far more cynical GOP will have the last laugh, potentially for a long time. Loyalty to the young and minority voters most endangered by voter suppression should be enough to make voting rights job one in this Congress, even if that means risky tactics like filibuster reform. But it may also be a matter of political survival.
In general, this is no time for Democrats to be afraid of taking risks; like it or not, everything they do right now is risky business. The ancient arguments between progressives and centrists on the best way to appeal to swing voters are largely moot at this moment. They had best make hay while the sun shines.