We’ve won: Now what?
After the too-close-for-comfort, took-several-days-to-count presidential victory, the scary narrowing of the margin in the House, and all those heartbreaking losses in Senate races -- after all that -- Georgia voters have given the Democratic Party a chance to govern. We run the House, Senate, and the White House. Yes, by the skin of our teeth, but we do.
Now the question is: what can we get done in the next two years that delivers genuine, tangible benefits to the American people? The answer to that question will determine our party’s and our country’s future. Narrow margins they may be, but we had better get some things done.
So here’s my advice to the Democratic Party and the progressive movement:
1. None of us are going to get everything we want, but if we are willing to work together in good faith, we can accomplish a lot. The margins in both the House and the Senate are so narrow that pretty much any Democrat can stop things from getting done. Joe Manchin can stop a lot of things from happening, so can the Squad, but it is equally true that if both Manchin and the Squad can agree on something, we can probably get it passed. This isn’t the scenario we wanted, it will make things incredibly challenging, but given that’s the dynamic, let’s embrace it. Maybe the various factions of the big tent Democratic coalition being forced to hear each other out and seek common ground will be good for our party. AOC and Manchin should get on a Zoom call together. Kirsten Sinema and Pramila Jayapal should do a virtual hangout.
To make an obvious point, Democrats are never going to agree on everything, but certainly we can come to terms on a number of really important things. Instead of (or who knows how this goes, maybe in addition to) everyone gearing up to see what they can stop -- since they all can -- maybe can everyone can figure out how to work together to get at least some important things done.
2. Progressives should get to know more people in West Virginia and Alaska; spend some organizing resources in Delaware; redouble their investments in Arizona; and do some serious organizing in Missouri. Depending on the issue, there are several senators who will end up being swing votes on certain things, including people who we would never normally think of as swing votes. Case in point: no more appalling man has ever walked the floors of the Senate than Josh Hawley, but he may end up providing a crucial vote on reining in the power of Big Tech. No one should mistake Mitt Romney’s being appalled at Trump for being a sign of being a moderate, he is still a conservative, but he might give us votes on the occasional good government bill. Especially with an election coming up, Portman might be amenable to an infrastructure bill and legislation to help manufacturing. Collins might be a swing vote on certain issues, although with her just getting reelected her true conservatism will probably be more in evidence in the next couple of years.
But the heart of Senate swing-vote country over the next two years is West Virginia and Alaska. Manchin is both the most conservative Democrat overall and the one from the most conservative state, but he has stayed a Democrat all these years when it would have been far easier politically to switch parties, and he has voted with the Democrats on a great many big bills like health care and taxes. Murkowski is a decent person who has always gotten along well with the labor unions and indigenous tribes in her state, and who has voted with us several times on big issues in spite of unceasing threats from Trump. Based on some of her post-failed coup attempt commentary, there is even a chance she could become an Independent who caucuses with us, which would be a very big deal. Having an even one vote margin for error will make a big difference.
Another state progressives should pay a lot more attention to is Delaware. The two senators there are not going to be swing votes on any bill Biden is for, that is not the issue, but they are two of the closest people to Biden, and will have enormous influence with him and the rest of the Senate over the all-important details of policy. I remember from my days in the Clinton White House how much David Pryor and Dale Bumpers influenced Clinton’s thinking, and how their influence among their fellow senators was highly elevated because of their close relationship to him. And it’s not just the senators: Delaware is beloved to Joe Biden, he has many friends there he still talks to regularly and loves dearly. Organizing there will matter.
We need to do some serious organizing in these three states, none of which have a particularly large progressive presence right now. Tweeting at them from California or New York isn’t going to help. We need organizers on the ground, working with local people who know the lay of the land, to have any influence. Being from a small state, and working for a governor and president who was from a small state, I can guarantee you that the politicians from small states know just about everyone there, and care an enormous amount about what their constituents are saying.
I want to emphasize the importance of Arizona. On economic issues, Sinema may well be the most conservative Democratic senator there is, she is very close to some of the big corporations that progressives will be battling on the issues we care about. Influencing her will be very important in terms of getting important things done on economic policy. The good news is that unlike in the other three states, the progressive movement, led by the Latino and Latina community, is really strong there, but additional investment in on-the-ground organizing is definitely needed.
Finally a word about Missouri. Yes, it is currently a hard core red state. But Josh Hawley desperately needs to feel some sustained pain over the huge role he played in the Capitol attack debacle, and Roy Blunt is about to face an ugly primary in 2022 from a Trumper, which might open the way for one of Missouri’s talented young Democrats like Nicole Galloway or Jason Kander to take that seat. Missouri’s unions beat back a Right-To-Work initiative a couple years ago, and the Black Lives Matter movement started in St Louis.
3. The importance of patience and sequencing. I recognize that as a privileged white guy and DC consultant, it is suspect for me to be counseling patience on all the urgently important needs people have right now. But I am going to counsel it nonetheless.
In the best of circumstances, the wheels of government mostly move more slowly than any of us progressives want them to move. Yes, absolutely some things and can and should move much more quickly. The new president can overturn most of Trump’s executive orders very quickly: I imagine that by COB Jan 21 we will see many of the worst of those EOs already gone.
But I know from many years of experience dealing with EOs that even they can get slowed down to an extent. You have to make sure the legal work is tight, because there are bound to be lawsuits. You have to have your economic team do an economic impact analysis, and if there is any budget impact, you have to check with OMB. Sometimes there are internal debates about how to phrase the EO to get the best impact.
Beyond EOs, which are usually the only thing that moves relatively quickly in government policy making, reversing Trump’s disastrous regulatory policies and charting a new course will take several months.
In terms of legislation, a new COVID relief bill might move fast but probably only a pared down one- to do a bigger relief bill, we will probably have to include it in reconcillation. Beyond that, with the skin-tight margins we have, crafting legislation that we can get enough votes on will probably take some time. What we’re going to have to figure out is the process of negotiating specific legislative language and then figuring out when to schedule votes on three different kinds of legislation:
A. Bills that might be able to get 10 Republican votes in the Senate, and probably some in the House a
well (given that some Democratic senators have already made it clear they won’t support an end to the
filibuster). Those include a relatively narrow COVID relief bill, infrastructure (with a major dose of money
for green energy), immigration reform, funding for the opioid crisis, criminal justice reform, Big Tech
regulation, and a bill to promote the manufacturing sector.
B. Bills that are widely popular with the American public, but probably won’t be able to get 60 votes,
where the object is to show how bad the Republicans are. Those include an increase in the minimum
wage, gun safety, voting rights, a tough new ethics bill, public financing of campaigns, increasing Social
Security benefits, abortion rights, an anti-discrimination law for LGBT citizens, and labor law reform. I
would recommend waiting on some of those so that we don’t start with a string of legislative defeats, but at
some point we should force Republicans to take those politically damaging votes.
C. The budget reconciliation bill, which as every student of American politics knows is the Big Enchilada.
Because you can put anything related to spending and taxes in the reconciliation, you can cover a lot of
ground. Assuming we can find 50 votes for it -- with the VP breaking the tie -- the reconciliation bill could
include significant measures on health care, climate, progressive taxation and beefing up tax enforcement,
criminal justice, money for more enforcement on criminal activities in the finance and Big Tech industries,
tougher rules going after the abuses of the big food and agriculture companies, more money related to
education at all levels, more money for anti-poverty programs, improving the working conditions of workers
for government contractors (including increasing their minimum wage and making it easier for them to
organize), and a wide variety of other things.
This list is far from comprehensive, it just relates to some of the big priorities. Any area where the federal government spends government probably qualifies for the reconciliation bill. And getting the biggest, boldest, best reconciliation bill passed that we can should absolutely be the progressive movement's top priority in 2021.
I also want to make a point on sequencing, not just on legislation, but on EOs. Obviously, Democrats and progressives have a ton we want to do now that we have control, and I am very much in favor of getting as much as we can as quickly as we can. There are too many important things desperately needed in this country where a new administration cannot just focus on one big bill in his first year (think Obama’s ACA, Clinton’s 1993 budget bill, or every Republican rpesident’s massive tax cuts for rich people bill). It was a political disaster for us to spend so much time on health care that we never got around to immigration or criminal justice reform or a host of other important priorities, and our lousy base turnout on the 2010 elections was testament to how badly that played out.
We need to roll things out sequentially so that:
voters know and understand what we are doing for them. We need to tell the story of our issue achievements far more aggressively and repetitively.
voters feel the impact on their lives very quickly. Example of the opposite: the benefits of the ACA mostly didn’t kick in for four years after it passed, so voters didn’t realize until years later how important it was.
a majority of voters, not just small subsets, understand that the early bills being passed actually, genuinely make their lives better. I believe most of our early legislation should be economic in focus because of the massive economic crisis at hand, and that it should impact most of us in a more tangible, immediate way. Example: a big new infrastructure bill will create millions of good paying new jobs immediately, and will result in improvements in most people’s lives: fixing crumbling old roads, bridges, schools, and airports, and building windmills and solar installations everywhere.
4. Genuine Democratic Party unity. I want to be very clear about what I mean by Democratic Party unity. Unity does not mean stifling debate on issues people are passionate about, or not advocating strongly for what anyone believes; it does not mean blinding following the president or speaker or Senate Majority Leader no matter what they say or do; and it doesn’t mean automatically going along with incumbents or other candidates picked by party committees in primaries. Debate, advocacy, give and take, and primaries are the vital heart of democracy. It is neither realistic for party leaders to expect that kind of unity, or even necessarily healthy for our political party for there to be that kind of unity.
What I mean by party unity is this: when it comes to getting legislation passed that will genuinely help a majority of the American people, that we come together and negotiate it in good faith to get something done. We need to get some wins on issues that matter to most voters, folks, and we need to get them in 2021 and 2022. We need to make the first two years of the Biden administration a policy and political success, otherwise we are looking at a midterm beating and most likely a competent fascist like Hawley or Cotton being elected in 2024. Otherwise we are looking at not getting significant things done to repair the American economy and democratic system, probably for the long term. Otherwise, we are looking at getting nothing done on climate change or racial justice or any of the other crises staring us full in the face today.
We are running the government as of January 20. We don’t have any margin for error, and the American people will not accept our excuses if we fail. We had better have our shit together, and that requires enough unity to get things done.