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In shaping his broad social spending legislation, priced at a putative $ 3.5 trillion, President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress have argued that this is what voters chose last November. And polls show broad support for universal pre-kindergarten, lower prescription drug prices, and expanded health care, paid for by higher taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. In essence, the argument says: “We won the argument and the vote and now is the time to turn these ideas into law. “The problem is that Democrats no winning the vote, at least, not in the sense that matters, given the unique nature of our system of government. And Biden hasn’t even won the argument widely enough in his own party.

The Democrats’ victory in 2020 came with the smallest majorities in Congress and largely in an anti-Trump campaign, without reaching any internal consensus on the details of a government plan. With moderates opposing key pieces of his social spending plan and progressives threatening to curb the accompanying infrastructure bill, Biden will have to quickly find a compromise that can save his agenda and prevent political disaster.

When progressives insist that Democrats have “full control” of the federal government, a claim echoed by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who disdains helping prevent government default, they take a seriously misleading claim.

After a dozen defeats in the House of Representatives last November, and with unified Republican opposition to the Democratic agenda, it only takes three defending Democrats out of 220 to defeat a bill. The Senate, of course, is evenly divided, and even that fact doesn’t measure how fragile Democratic control is; If Georgia Republican David Perdue had won a quarter of 1 percent more of the vote last fall, the Senate would now be in the hands of Republicans.

Yes, Biden had a plurality of about seven million votes; In a system with a national popular vote, that four-and-a-half-point margin over Donald Trump would have represented a reasonably comfortable victory. But all that margin came from just two states, New York and California, so his election was cut to about 42,000 votes in three states. And Biden’s victory provided no “warm skirts” for Democrats in negative votes. You may bemoan the anti-majority characteristics of the Electoral College, Senate, and House controlled districts in many states, but the fact is, as a blunt political fact of life, Democrats did not “win the vote” that would have isolated to the party of a single dissident senator or a small handful of members of the House.

Biden is not the first Democratic president to deal with the unfortunate facts of political life in a federalist system. Even with 57 senators and more than 250 members of the House, Bill Clinton managed to get his fiscal and budget proposals approved in 1993 by margins of one vote in both houses, and only after ruling out key elements of his plan. (“I hope you all know that we are all Eisenhower Republicans now,” he complained to his cabinet in 1993). President Barack Obama once had 60 Democratic senators, but he needed each of them to overcome a Republican obstructionism for the Affordable Care Act to pass, which was also reduced to the dismay of progressives.

Trump was also a victim of this reality in 2018, when three defending Republican senators, including, most dramatically, John McCain, defeated his attempt to repeal the ACA. That political implosion came in large part because Trump and his allies in Congress were unable to agree on any plans to replace Obamacare even though for years they pledged to do so once they gained power.

Is that an unfair analogy to today’s Democratic scrum? Didn’t Biden campaign on a promise, reflecting popular opinion, to make government an ally of the poor and middle class, and pay for it with higher taxes for the rich?

The answer is poignant: “it depends.” When the argument moves from the general to the specific, cracks open in the Democratic base. Democrats representing some of the “bluest” states want their wealthy constituents to be able to deduct their state and local taxes; to progressives elsewhere, that sounds reassuring to those who are comfortable. Democrats from the most violet districts argue that the most expansive parts of the budget bill are too much for their constituents to swallow. Progressives argue that with Democratic majorities in jeopardy next year, this is the only chance they have to sign ambitious social legislation into law; Centrists say the most ambitious proposals are the ones that put the majority in even greater danger. The only clear element about these rebel battles is that tiny majorities in the House and Senate do not give Democrats anything remotely like the power they had in the days of the New Deal and the Great Society (not to mention the significant support Republican in those countries). ages). The attempt to make an analogy with those days of social legislation amounts to historical illiteracy.

Obviously, this is not an argument for abandoning ambitious goals. It suggests, instead, a last-ditch attempt to pass that infrastructure bill and a budget bill that reflects both a significant effort to make life less unfair and an honest acceptance of what the politics of the day will accept. Acknowledge the wisdom of Ronald Reagan’s aphorism that “my 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent enemy.” He advocates the kind of outcome that gives Democrats the only reasonable chance to fight a midterm fight in which they will be overwhelmed by Republican history and perfidy in terms of manipulation and restrictions on voters. That possibility lies in your ability to argue:

“We promised to repair the physical infrastructure of the country, meet the needs of rural America, put the government on the side of the poor and middle class. And that’s what we’re doing “.

That argument may not be enough to overcome the force of cultural resentments, the White House missteps or the Republican assault on the vote. But with no visible evidence of the Democrats’ central argument, no pre-K, some form of expanded health care, some steps toward a fairer tax system, Democrats will enter next year with one or both hands tied behind their backs.

If there is a possibility of compromise, Democrats would do well to heed Obama’s words as he looks back on the fight for health care and the laments from the progressive wing about the compromises needed to pass the bill.

“The complaint,” he wrote in his memoirs, “had immediate political consequences for Democrats … by preemptively turning what could be a monumental but imperfect victory into a bitter political defeat, the criticism contributed to a possible long-term demoralization. Deadline for Democratic voters; otherwise known as the ‘what’s the point if nothing changes?’ syndrome, which makes it even more difficult for us to win elections and advance progressive legislation in the future. “

Republicans, Obama wrote, “understood that in politics, stories were also often as important as substance achieved.”

The lesson? Democrats have to come up with not just a unifying compromise, but a “story” that centrists and progressives alike are willing and eager to tell: “We are doing what we promised, their lives will be better, and not a single Republican helped. to make this possible. ” There is no guarantee that this will win the discussion and the vote next year. But what other chance do they have?


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