So far, so good. President Biden has signed about 50 executive orders overturning awful things Trump did, and has put in place new policies to address the COVID crisis, protect workers and the environment, and expand health care coverage. The impeachment managers brilliantly won in the court of public opinion, as Mitch McConnell’s bizarro speech after his vote to acquit proved. The party so far remains unified on getting a big COVID/economic relief bill passed, and the Biden administration and progressive movement are working very constructively together.
I want to push back on the news reports that all that has been done so far is “the easy part.” That notion is in every news story about the Democrats’ early success and unity. But there is nothing easy or automatic about steady progress or party unity. Every executive order has to be painstakingly thought through, researched, and written. Every decision in the impeachment trial had to be carefully weighed, knowing full well that every decision would be criticized, whether by some in the party, the base, or the press. With the paper-thin margins the Democrats have, almost every Democrat in the House, and every Democrat in the Senate, has to be consulted, cajoled, and brought on board. With progressives demanding more and party centrists demanding caution, keeping everyone together is enormously taxing work.
Having been a part of the Clinton transition and White House, and the Obama transition, I can tell you for sure that team Biden’s early days are going so much better than the last two Democratic presidencies. Our early days in the Clinton White House were very rocky, with Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and the Republicans tormenting us as we made a mess of the gays-in-the-military issue, multiple top appointments not being confirmed for one reason or another, and our early attempt at a (very small) stimulus being easily stopped by the Republicans. In the Obama White House, the appointments of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff and Larry Summers as the head of the National Economic Council signaled right away that the administration wouldn't be very interested in working constructively with the progressive movement. And the early decisions to allow Wall Street execs to keep their bonuses after crashing the economy and go easy on Wall Street in general outraged pretty much everyone except Wall Street execs.
By contrast, the early days of the Biden administration have been steady, solid, and strategic. They have rolled out their cabinet and sub-cabinet nominations, along with their White House staff, with only a couple of bumps in the road. As I mentioned above, they have executed a well run executive order process, getting a remarkable amount of things done quickly and effectively; and they have worked with House and Senate leadership to, so far, keep progressive and more conservative Democrats on board with their ambitious relief package.
All this has taken a lot of work and been more difficult behind the scenes than they are getting credit for. But as challenging as things have been to date, yes, it will keep getting harder. How do we keep this sense of Democratic unity in the all-important mission of getting important things done for regular people going?
Here are my guide posts:
1. Understand that Democrats hang together or we hang separately. That old line of Ben Franklin’s at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed was not meant as a joke or clever word play: it was quite literally true and deadly serious. Unfortunately, this moment in history finds us in a similar moment, as that gallows the insurrectionists were building at the Capitol are a deadly sign that the threat is real. We Democrats need to deliver real things for real people over the next two years, or we are going to lose control of the government to a political party which just overwhelmingly rejected the idea that a president who encouraged a coup should not be punished for it.
We need to work together to get anything done, and we need to get substantial things done in order to win in 2022. With the margins we have now, there is literally no choice in the matter. We all know that opportunities for compromise with the Republicans will be few and far between, but compromise between Democrats is mandatory if we want to get anything done. So for my progressive comrades, we need to get everything we can on every bill we can, and then compromise and move on to the next chance. If we can convince the last few swing votes on at least reforming the filibuster, that should work out reasonably well for us, and even if not, there should be a lot we can get into the second reconciliation bill as well as more executive action.
2. Substance over symbolism. Progressives and Democrats need to focus on getting substantial things done to help people in their daily lives. It was critically important to go through the impeachment trial to lay out the case to the American people over how linked to the right-wing mob that Trump really was, but dragging it out with witnesses would have been purely symbolic, and would have slowed down the desperately needed COVID and economic relief we need to get passed.
There will be other moments where we need to choose between moments of symbolism, and seizing the day to get really critical policies passed. I am heavily in favor of getting real stuff accomplished, and the more the better, the sooner the better. Symbolism is important sometimes for sure, especially when you don’t have governing power -- but when you do, you have to deliver on real stuff that matters and will be noticed.
3. Keep advocating, but don’t be so focused on what you are not getting that you don’t celebrate what you are getting. We haven’t yet won passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID and economic relief package, and we have to stay focused on getting that done because the stakes are so high. But right now we are on track to win it, and it would be a phenomenal achievement. The scope of this package is bold and ambitious, and the things in the relief bill are policy items the progressive movement has been pushing for ever since COVID hit, including unemployment insurance extension, emergency paid family leave, rental assistance, funding for schools to safely reopen, money for COVID testing and vaccine distribution, and direct payments to individuals.
But like all legislation that needs 50 senators and 218 House members to pass, this bill will be far from perfect. I know some people are upset that the personal relief checks will be $1,400 rather than $2,000, and it isn’t yet clear whether we can get the $15 minimum wage into a reconciliation bill. I agree with those concerns, and am working very hard on figuring out ways to include the minimum wage in the bill. And I know there are plenty of other things many of us would love to see in it.
Progressives should work hard in solidarity to make this bill as good as possible, to get the minimum wage and every other thing we can. The best we can do right now is to do grassroots organizing in the home states of Manchin and Sinema, who are the two senators we are having the toughest time bringing over to our side.
But even if we don’t succeed at getting all that done, if we can get the overall relief bill passed, strategically progressives should celebrate all the good things in this bill in a big way. We need Americans to know that Democrats can get good things done that improve their lives. We need to tell the story that the government they elected in 2020 is working to save people’s lives, get through the COVID crisis, and rebuild the economy from the ground up, not the top down.
4. Let’s take a break from gratuitous attacks on fellow Democrats. One of the positive things I am seeing right now is the relative lack of gratuitous Democrat-on-Democrat attacks since we won in Georgia. People seem genuinely focused on figuring out how we can pass legislation, rather than scoring cheap political points against other factions in the party. Things didn’t look like they were starting out that way after the November election: two days after Election Day, a couple of the more conservative members of the House Democratic caucus lashed out at progressives, blaming them for the losses we suffered in the House. Progressives pushed back, naturally, although I was impressed with this statement from AOC in response:
"There are, at least in the House caucus, very deep divisions within the party, and I believe that we need to really come together and not allow Republican narratives to tear us apart... [With a slimmer Democratic majority] it’s going to be more important than ever for us to work together and not fight each other.”
That attitude is exactly what all of us Democrats should embrace right now.
Since that early outburst, there has been relatively little in the way of personal attacks, and that is how we need to keep it. My progressive allies should do everything they can to organize in West Virginia and Arizona, and to persuade Manchin and Sinema, but aggressive personal attacks on them are not the way to go right now, as they will just dig in further. And centrists who love to go out of their way to take swipes at AOC, Bernie Sanders, and various unnamed leftists need to take a break as well. We need everyone in the Democratic Party to stay on board right now.
Passing legislation with the narrow margins in the House and Senate is going to be an intense challenge, requiring Democrats to stay together and requiring everyone to compromise and work things out in good faith. Biden has started off in much stronger political shape than the last two Democratic presidents, and we are on the verge of passing the biggest and boldest recovery package in the history of the republic. We need to methodically get that done, and then build on the success with another reconciliation bill where we can do bigger long-term things.
Will there ever be bipartisan legislation? I could see that potentially happening on an infrastructure bill, an opioid relief bill, a bill to rein in Big Tech, maybe a couple of other things. But we can’t count on much cooperation at all from the Republican Party, so us Democrats need to work things out amongst ourselves for the most part, getting done whatever we can. And when we do pass legislation, we need to celebrate it, to tell the story of what we passed, why we passed it, and what it will do for voters.
Carpe diem, Democrats. It’s time to seize the damn day.