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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: The Return of Political Realism

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

As it becomes ever clearer that the Biden presidency never had the transformational potential assigned to it by many Democrats in and out of the administration, it is perhaps time to cast comforting illusions aside and look clear-eyed at political reality.

Two articles today are helpful. Nate Cohn looks at the non-FDRness of Biden’s time and Biden’s actions:

“Joseph R. Biden Jr. was supposed to be another Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democratic president who enacted transformative liberal legislation and in doing so built a lasting political coalition….

Rather than following Mr. Roosevelt’s playbook and focusing relentlessly on the crises facing the nation and voters, Mr. Biden’s efforts have shifted from the pandemic and the economy to also pursue longstanding Democratic policy goals — universal prekindergarten, climate change, voting rights, a child tax credit.

Even if those proposals are needed or important, they do not rank high on the list of the public’s demands at the heart of a pandemic and with rising inflation. Only 33 percent of voters say the president is focused on the issues they “care a lot about,” according to a recent CBS/YouGov poll.

The decision to prioritize the goals of his party’s activist base over the issues prioritized by voters is more reminiscent of the last half-century of politically unsuccessful Democratic presidents than of Mr. Roosevelt himself….

It is a presidency aimed at matching Mr. Roosevelt’s transformative legacy while forgetting the most basic, high school history class lesson about the root of the New Deal’s political appeal: It was designed to meet the challenges of the moment.

While liberals cherish the New Deal for expanding the role of government, the core of its political success was its focus on addressing an immediate crisis facing the nation — the shuttered banks, failing farms and mass unemployment of the Great Depression.”

Matt Yglesias has some ideas about what a more realistic approach might be at this point for the Democrats:

“For Mr. Biden and his team to give Democrats a fighting chance and turn his numbers around before electoral disaster strikes, they need to keep two slightly paradoxical thoughts in mind. First, Mr. Biden is governing in extraordinary times, but his presidency is still governed by the normal rules of American politics. Second, generating a feeling of normalcy around American politics and daily life — as he promised to do during the campaign — would itself be a transformative change….

Yet even when it turned out that the [pre-election] polls were off and his victory was much narrower than expected, Mr. Biden never really let go of the dream of a transformative 1930s-style presidency, though he clearly lacked the large legislative majorities to deliver on a New Deal or Great Society….

When all is said and done, the frustrations of the Biden supporters who want a return to normal are more politically significant than those of the more progressive crowd who yearn for transformation.

That means more focus on the short-term economic situation. The good news on inflation is that the gasoline price spike of 2021 is unlikely to occur a second time, and the Federal Reserve is likely to pivot into inflation-fighting mode as well. But there are risks, too, from economic disruptions in China, and monetary policy efforts to curb inflation could do too much to curb real growth as well.

The fate of Mr. Biden’s presidency — and if you believe the dire warnings of many Democrats and academics, of the republic itself — hinges less on the fate of legacy items like Build Back Better or a renewed voting rights act than it does on the normal procession of macroeconomic events. Unfortunately for Mr. Biden, no president has control over them entirely — but pushing for a final version of the bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which contains provisions to strengthen the semiconductor supply chain, could be helpful.

It means more attention to classic Biden themes of patriotism, bipartisanship and normalcy, and fewer headlines dominated by high-profile squeeze plays against moderate senators.

Most of what has happened to Mr. Biden has been very normal. But if Democrats take their own fears about the opposition party seriously, they should be very worried about the consequences of the normal cycle of overreach and backlash, and try harder to surprise the country by doubling down on normalcy.”

It all reminds me of something I wrote at the beginning of the year in one of my first contributions to The Liberal Patriot:

“Biden got 51 percent of the vote in 2020, enough to win the election, but hardly a dominant majority. And Democrats’ downballot performance was distinctly inferior, leading to disappointing performance in Senate, House and state legislative races. The Biden administration now confronts a divided country racked by twin pandemic and economic crises. In the not so far distance looms the 2022 midterm elections where an incoming Presidential administration traditionally loses ground. The last time Democrats faced this situation in 2010 they suffered massive losses….

[Democratic success] can only run through a successful attack on the pandemic and economic crises. Really for the next period of time nothing else is important. Not immigration reform. Not criminal justice reform. Not climate change. Not child poverty. Not executive orders. Not Trump’s trial. Either solve the twin crises or prepare yourself for the wrath of voters who will, not unreasonably, think you have failed them. The Biden coalition will shrink, not expand and all the great ideas progressives have for improving the country will come to naught.”

In retrospect, it appears I might have been on to something.

2 comments on “Teixeira: The Return of Political Realism

  1. ken brociner on

    So much of what is said in these articles is due to the fact that Manchin and Sinema have stood in the way of passing these bills. Biden and many other leading Democrats believed that, in the end, these two senators would come around and support the administration. If they had (yes, a big if) all of the criticism of Biden and the Dems in these articles would have been rendered moot. Because of this, I find these generalizations to be not only off base, but also as a clear example of “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

  2. J Powell on

    I could not agree more. I’m a liberal and passionate about the environment and voting rights, but I’m also a pragmatist. When there’s a fire in the theater, someone needs to yell fire and not recommend better ways for smoke alarms to work in the building.

    And by the way, when I voted for Biden, I never expected the result to be the 21st century version of the New Deal. I was hoping a narcissist with no concern whatsoever for democracy did not get reelected. Fixing our broken government will take years.


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