Well, it’s all over but the pouting, louting, shouting, and lying. Despite the chaos and continuing norm-smashing, President-elect Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. will be inaugurated on January 20, 2021. I assume there’ll be some continuing, even progressing awfulness between now and then, but we’ll get through it.
Then the focus will zero in on the contentiousness between the moderate Democrats who blame the left for the loss of House and Senate seats—and the left who refute those claims and point to the energized young voters casting ballots for the first time.
I’m going to let this important matter sit for a while except to stress that I think both sides have to realize they/we need each other and must find some modus operandi to face the larger forces readying to bring down the entire party, the President-elect’s opportunity to govern, and our democracy.
How We Can Actually Get Things Done Together
My inspiration comes from writer Anand Giridharadas (his name is so difficult to pronounce that there’s actually a video of people introducing him as a guide), whose very long and interesting piece appeared in The New York Times Sunday Review.
He is best known for his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. It’s a provocative work that awaits me on my Kindle.
The Times article was written just before the election had been called for Biden and the Senate losses had been reported. The Times editors replaced the title “Joe Biden’s Magic” with an interesting, if more prosaic, update: “Biden Can’t Be F.D.R. He Could Still Be L.B.J.” I prefer the original, and the final quotation below explains why.
After citing a fury-inducing summary of Trumpian chaos, Giridharadas issues a call to action to us all.
“Given the collective frenzy of these years, President-elect Joe Biden intuited that legions of Americans wanted a return to normal — a restoration, a reversion. The earnest hope in his promise ‘to restore the soul of America’ was that the same country that uplifted Donald Trump and let itself be consumed by internet-fueled culture wars could heed its better angels again, as it did when it elected the nation’s first Black president on a hope-and-change mandate not so long ago.
“But if this election is to have lasting meaning, we cannot see a Biden campaign victory as license to cast away politics as a presence in our daily lives. We cannot succumb to the liberal temptation parodied by the comedian Kylie Brakeman to ‘vote for Biden so we can all get back to brunch.’
“However effective it might have been at closing this race, this restorationist fantasy would be a terrible governing philosophy. Because the pre-Trump world — in which voting rights were being gutted and 40 percent of Americans couldn’t afford a $400 emergency bill — is no kind of place to go back to.
“Mr. Biden himself seemed to concede this point by tempering his restoration message with the slogan ‘Build Back Better.’”
Giridharadas observes that he’d spoken to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who—though a devotee like Biden of the institutions of government—negated the idea that the new administration should strive for “restoration versus transformation.”
Schumer emphatically came down on the side of “bold change,” stressing his concern that otherwise, we might end up with someone even worse than Trump in four years.
Changing the Way People View the Government
At heart, the difficulty the Democrats face is that since the Reagan years, Republicans have persuaded lots of Americans that the federal government is a force for evil, rather than a force for good.
There’s a serious disconnect between the way many people view government—and the reality of what good governance can do for them. Remember during the fight over Obamacare, which now is highly popular despite the need for substantial fixes, one man cried out: “Take your government hands off my Medicare”?
Giridharadas’s main point is that it’s essential for Biden to show Americans that government can, indeed, be an invaluable force for good. This is something I’ve felt even more strongly since we’ve been hit by the COVID pandemic and its associated economic devastation. If ever there was a time for a vast government effort, organizing in partnership with local governance to improve people’s lives, it’s now.
To my mind, the Republicans’ blocking the Democrats’ Heroes Act–which would provide much-needed support to individuals, small businesses, Coronavirus relief, and to state and local governments overwhelmed by the pandemic’s impact–borders on the criminal. (I view their refusal to acknowledge Biden’s win the same way…)
Scenario One: The Democrats Have a Senate Majority
A huge issue is whether the Democrats can win the two Senate races in Georgia. With a 50-50 split, Vice President Harris breaks the tie vote. Chuck Schumer then becomes the Majority Leader.
That could mean the Democrats get rid of the filibuster, which many believe is an essential act if anything significant is to be accomplished with Mitch McConnell still controlling the Republicans.
Giridharadas’s key question is whether Biden, a center-left persona with a penchant for compromise, will take that critical step. It would be hard for him, essentially foreclosing any chance for the collaborative efforts that he ran on and deeply believes in.
But ending the filibuster, says Giridharadas,
“could still be a risk worth taking. If Democrats win the two presumed Georgia runoffs, Senate Democrats will represent roughly 41 million more people than the Republican half of the chamber. If Mr. Biden is to meet this moment, he can’t let his cautious temperament and deep hankering for civic comity stop him from making the policy changes families need.”
Will he see himself as a Dream Big, consequential President who will do what’s needed to accomplish major things for Americans right now–when there are so many whose plight is desperate?
Biden doesn’t hold grudges, but he also knows how destructive McConnell was to the Obama presidency. And now that his old friend Mitch has refused to recognize his electoral win, he may be willing to see—or be convinced by others to acknowledge—that his entire administration can be stymied by McConnell.
“…if Democrats do win the Senate? Senator Schumer told me he envisions a first 100 days filled with a raft of measures on the virus and economic relief, mixed in with policies that address inequality, climate change, student debt, immigration and more. A Biden administration’s early days ‘ought to look like F.D.R.’s,’ he said. ‘We need big, bold change. America demands it, and we’re going to fight for it.’”
So maybe there’s far more that the moderates and progressives can agree upon—in sync with most Americans—than the rhetoric to date suggests.
One question is whether Biden will be deterred by the cries for fiscal conservatism and the calls from the Republicans who sided with him, who seem only to worry about the deficit when Democrats are in control. “Who will have more of a voice in Washington?,” Giridharadas asks.
A positive note may be found in today’s (11/14) New York Times: “Biden’s Selections Suggest Tougher Wall Street Rules.”
Scenario Two: McConnell’s Still in Charge
If the Georgia races go to the Republicans (who both have lots of shady stuff in their pasts) and McConnell remains the Senate Majority leader, Giridharadas still thinks Biden could make substantial changes in people’s lives by bypassing Congress.
“The growing sense, among both the party’s technocrats and its populists, is that their midterm fate lies in whether voters give Democrats credit for improving their lives — not on the processes used or norms violated to do so.”
He quotes Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington:
“A public health and economic crisis is not the time for incremental steps, small ideas or meekness…Joe Biden can deliver on this from Day 1 with executive orders and administrative actions that cancel student debt, lower drug prices, strengthen workers’ rights and cut emissions.”
I can see a Democratic Congressional consensus around such issues.
Newly appointed Chief of Staff Ron Klain (who receives rave reviews for his previous work in government) has already said there will be a raft of executive orders awaiting President Biden on January 20. They’ll include securing the status of the DACA recipients, reentering the Paris Climate Accords, and rolling back a number of anti-environmental regulations.
Giridharadas notes that The American Prospect recently published “277 Policies for Which Biden Need Not Ask Permission,” based on the results of the Biden-Sanders unity task force.
In a Twitter talk linked to his article (worth watching if you have access to Twitter), Giridharadas said he’d interviewed American historian Jill Lepore, who observed that FDR used small things that bought him space for bigger things.
Giridharadas says Biden could “bring people together to build locally powered community projects with local problem-solving.”
But he also points out that there are now policies that appeal to both parties “thanks to the heterodoxy of Trumpism.” (Interesting to find something positive linked to that guy, isn’t it?) One of them is a wealth tax a la Elizabeth Warren, which polls well with Republican voters, though not with their elected officials.
A tax on those with $400,000 income may not resonate with people making $100,000, who like to think they may reach that threshold.
But a tax on billionaires? Well, since most people see such status beyond their reach, they could go along with that—especially if it were called “The Patriot’s Tax,” or something similar.
Giridharadas suggests, quite wisely, that a lot has to do with using appropriate verbiage in naming such initiatives.
Other possible efforts:
“Using the Department of Justice to crack down on monopolies and threats from China has some bipartisan support. As does actual infrastructure investment and, to a limited extent, raising the minimum wage.”
Another critically important move is to “build a down-ballot pipeline” through a 50-state strategy. Lack of attention to this party-building necessity is something for which Obama has been faulted. It must be done starting now.
“To the extent that, for the next two years, divided government severely limits the sort of public action that progressives dreamed about in their 2020 primaries, Mr. Biden could use his office to create task forces that normalize and build a public consensus for more significant small-d democratic changes to American politics achievable only down the road.”
How Will the President Employ His Skills?
“Despite our divisions, Mr. Biden could use the bully pulpit to bring the country together. He could promote local projects of dialogue and reconciliation, and continue to hold genuinely bipartisan town halls throughout his term.”
Giridharadas then talks of what he calls Biden’s tendency to “elevate personal kindness over systemic justice” and asks what will matter to him more: “the radiation of personal decency or the pursuit of structural fairness?”
He believes the President-elect has shown his adaptability to the circumstances he’s facing. He compares Biden to Lyndon Johnson, “a longtime senator and a vice president less charismatic than the president he served and succeeded who, nevertheless, became more consequential…,” stressing Biden’s personal “folksy, median-voter-friendly patois, that ‘C’mon, man’ Americana vibe.”
Giridharadas gives the last word to former Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang, and because I think it’s both astute and encouraging, I will too.
“Joe Biden’s magic is that everything he does becomes the new reasonable. He has shown the ability to move the mainstream of the Democratic Party on issues before. As president, whatever he does, he will bring the whole center with him.”
PS: We must do everything we can to win those two Senate seats. If you can donate even a small amount to Jon Ossoff (electjon.com) and Raphael Warnock (warnockforgeorgia.com), please do. And if you can do work such as phone calls (and donate), contact fairfight.com, the organization the amazing Stacey Abrams formed that has powered the changes that enabled Joe Biden to win Georgia in this election.