The Opportunity For Biden, the Democrats and the Country

In a previous blog, I’ve advocated for compromise with Republicans and a smaller Covid relief package than President Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal. In this guest blog Harry Peterson makes the case for going big. — Dave Cieslewicz

By Harry Peterson

FACTS

  • Presidents get credit and blame for things over which they have only modest influence.  Perhaps the biggest example is the economy. President Obama inherited an economy that was just entering the Great Recession and paid a price with losses in the House and Senate in 2010.  By the time FDR became President in 1933, we had been in a deep depression for over four years.  While there was Republican opposition to his programs, he was not blamed for the depression.
  • In politics cause and effect is not what we would like. Voters spend little time thinking about policy and tend to vote as they have in the past. Typically, they attach their voting to a person, and stay with that person. Voters often change their positions to conform to their candidate. For example, President Trump never questioned anything that Russia did, or Putin said, and Republican attitudes became much more favorable toward that country.
  • Today the situation is dire: the economy, unemployment, and government infrastructure are in bad shape and vaccines are not getting out fast enough. President Biden’s supporters, and even some who did not support him, view him as having an extremely tough job.

THEREFORE

  • Because unemployment has affected not only the chronically underemployed and unemployed, but the middle class, it changes the political dynamics.  So, it’s not easy to dismiss unemployment as something that happens to people who just aren’t trying hard enough. 
  • While Biden may get no Republican votes for his $1.9 trillion proposal, the opposition among Republicans will not be as uniform or intense as it was for passage of Obamacare, that was enacted entirely by Democratic votes.
  • This is an opportunity for Biden and the Democrats to demonstrate that the Federal government can accomplish important things, in contrast with his predecessor.  The most obvious examples are Covid vaccinations and unemployment.
  • The economy will get better because Biden will get more people vaccinated more quickly and, it would have gotten better eventually, regardless of who was president. Biden will get much credit, some deserved, some not.
  • With these dynamics, the Democrats may be able to approve and implement programs that they have supported for years.  An important example is a child support tax credit that would have a big effect on poverty in this country.  That this idea now has some bipartisan support is clear from Sen. Mitt Romney’s support for such a plan.

ELECTIONS:  2022

  • With only occasional exceptions, the party that wins the White House loses seats in the House and Senate in the mid-term elections.  The Democratic control of the House and the Senate are tiny, so it is likely that they will lose both.  (Because Biden’s election had no coattails and he did not sweep people into office with him, there is reason to hope that the Democrats may do better than usual in the non-presidential elections of 2022.)
  • Biden should “go big” because he may only have two years to accomplish the important parts of his domestic agenda before losing his House and Senate majorities.  Also, by “going big” he will demonstrate that government can be effective and he can run on having real accomplishments.
  • Because the country is so polarized, Biden will get almost no credit in 2022 and few Republican votes if he greatly compromises his proposals to get Republican votes.  Also, he will have to deal with the left wing of his party who will say he did not go far enough.  He needs to keep the progressive wing supportive of his policies, because he needs them to be enthusiastic in getting to the polls in 2022.

FUTURE OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY

  • In their Friday night political analysis on the PBS News Hour last week, David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart talked about the Republicans needing leadership to bring them out of their current mess.  I disagree. The future of the Republican Party has virtually nothing to do with leadership or policy ideas.  To be a leader you must have followers. Has anyone noticed people following Mitt Romney or Rep, Liz Cheney?  Two iconic names in the Republican Party: Cheney and McCain. Both Liz Cheney and Cindy McCain are being censured by their state parties.
  • The positions and size of the Republican Party will be determined by voters.  In 2022 there will be primary challenges to the Republican House and Senate members who were not loyal to Trump.  Some will survive, others will be beaten by Trump supporters, with Trump campaigning for them.  In most cases, the result will be continued representation by Republicans. In some cases, fervent Trump supporters will replace more conventional Republicans.  Republicans and the rest of us will learn from that election the breadth and depth of the influence of Donald Trump and will behave accordingly.  If the Republican office holders who voted to certify the election, or voted for impeachment survive, they will gather support.  If not, most Republican House members and Senators will remain silent.
  • While historically the likelihood is strong that the Republicans will take the House and the Senate in 2022, the Democrats need to tie them to Donald Trump and “go big” on programs.  Not doing so will just increase chances that they will become the minority party in Congress, making them unable to pass anything of substance after the mid-terms.
  • Democrats sometimes say, in their frustration, that their party should “get tough” and use the tactics of Trump and the Republicans.  Frustration does not yield a strategy.  How does one get tough on the October nomination of a Supreme Court Justice when the Democrats do not have the votes in the Senate to prevent her confirmation?
  • But this time there is an opportunity to “get tough.”  The Republicans, I am confident, wish they did not have Marjorie Taylor Greene, of rural Georgia, in their caucus.  She is not only a link to Trump, but to the most bizarre of Trump supporters, supporting conspiracies, aliens, claiming the Parkland shootings were not real, among other things.  Her views align closely with the people who led the insurrection on January 6th.
  • The Republicans have always found someone they could demonize in the Democratic Party and run against that person. For several years, it was Rep. Maxine Waters of California and now it’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both progressives and, not coincidentally, women of color.  (Every time Rush Limbaugh talks about AOC he pronounces her name with an exaggerated Spanish accent.  Every time he mentions Obama he says and puts emphasis on his middle name, Hussein.)  Overwhelmingly, the Republicans voted against removing Greene from committee assignments.  
  • Two years ago, the Republican House leadership removed former Rep. Steve King of Iowa from his committee assignments, after he made racist remarks.  His statements, while egregious, were not nearly as bizarre as those of Greene.  However, he did not embrace Trump with the same fervor as Greene.
  • The Democratic Party needs to continue to link Greene with the Republican Party.  Also, the Democrats need to continue to focus on the unconstitutional behavior of Republicans refusing to certify the presidential election.

In summary, Biden has sympathy for his challenge somewhat beyond his Democratic base, even in these polarized times.  He can do things to demonstrate that the government can accomplish important things and he will get credit for an improving economy.  The Democrats can run on these accomplishments and have legitimate tools to point out the embrace of Marjorie Taylor Greene and other Republicans with strange beliefs.

None of these are long-term solutions for getting our country out of this deeply polarized state. That would require big solutions, like getting rid of the Electoral College, which is not going to happen. However, as someone who has lobbied in four states for public higher education, I learned that you count votes and deal with reality. In these times, a harsh, sober reality.

This is another in a series of occasional guest blogs offered by a distinguished group of contributors.

Harry Peterson, President Emeritus of Western Colorado University in Gunnison, also served in the administrations of Democratic Governors Patrick Lucy and Martin Schreiber. He lives in Middleton.

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