In his State of the Union speech earlier this week Pres. Joe Biden tacked to the center. In doing so, he gave his party some slim hope for the fall.
I especially liked three things the president said and one set of things he didn’t say.
First, he clearly and forcefully rejected the “defund the police” nonsense. He said, to a bipartisan ovation, “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police,” he said. “Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training, resources and training they need to protect their communities.” Yes.
Second, he took a page from Bill Clinton’s small ball tactics after Clinton’s Democrats got pasted in the 1994 mid-terms. He called for, “A unity agenda for the nation.” This included combatting the opioid crisis, working to help people defeat mental illness, supporting veterans and ending cancer. What’s not to like? Anybody out there for opioids or cancer or against treating mental illness or helping veterans? Now, he needs to follow up with legislation and lots of bully-pulpit on these four themes.
Third, he struck just the right, tough tone on Putin and his outrageous attack on Ukraine. This is an important moment because Putin has given the West a chance to solidify once again in its opposition to authoritarianism (including the likes of Donald Trump) and to remind itself what it’s purpose is in history: to defend, strengthen and spread liberal democratic values.
But fourth, Biden’s speech was important for the issues he didn’t talk about or to which he gave only a passing reference. He emphasized the qualifications of his choice for Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, but didn’t mention her race. He didn’t spend a lot of time on guns, immigration, transgender rights or identity politics in general. He touched only briefly on climate change and then he didn’t preach or speak in apocalyptic terms. He called for more weatherization and investments in clean energy.
This is very good. Culture wars issues are losers for Democrats. They have to stay away from them. But I am not saying Democrats should give up on substance; only that they should stop harping on these things or, when they need to mention them, talk about them differently. So, Biden will get the first Black woman justice. That’s historic. He doesn’t need to slam the ball in the end zone. He’s not going to get any sweeping legislation on climate change out of this Congress anyway. So it’s smart to talk about some bipartisan incremental things you can get done, like energy savings for families and more clean energy. In the same vein, gun control is a dead issue at the national level, so why spend any political capital on it? I think Democrats should continue to move on gun control at the state level in states where they have majorities.
Look folks, a full-throated liberal agenda will invite a full-throated rejection by the voters in November, and just put us even further from any kind of progress at all. Even under the best of circumstances, the Democrats can expect to lose their House majority, but limit the numbers, and maintain their slim Senate edge. But Biden’s speech, if his themes are followed by his party, give them some fighting chance at that.
And on another matter… give Gov. Tony Evers and swing Justice Brian Hagedorn some credit. But not much. Yesterday, Hagedorn joined three liberal justices in choosing Evers’ redistricting maps over the Republican maps. But even Evers’ maps essentially lock in big Republican majorities, only slightly less so than the GOP maps. The most significant victory for Democrats is that the ruling will create a second competitive Congressional seat in Southeast Wisconsin. That’s not likely to mean much this year, when Republicans will probably hold on to it anyway, but in future years that are better for Democrats it could mean that they pick up a seat. The real message is that, with the field tilted toward Republicans for another decade, state Democrats have to figure out how to reconnect to rural and small town voters.