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Best in the Big Tent: June 2023
Normal politics saves the day, Biden’s popularism works, and more.
Normal Politics Saves the Day
When June kicked off, America was facing down the growing prospect of a catastrophic debt default. It appeared that Kevin McCarthy’s narrow majority would hold President Biden’s agenda hostage and send the country into a tailspin.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, as Josh Barro prophesied, Normal Politics Resolved the Debt Ceiling Crisis.
In short, Democrats accepted political reality and reacted by meeting the GOP where they stood. They couldn't snap their fingers and magically take back the House, but they could work diligently to preserve Biden’s accomplishments:
Joe Biden continues to be very good at working with both parties in Congress. I think Matt Yglesias… has the correct broad diagnosis of why: while Barack Obama was too interested in winning arguments — showing Republicans why they shouldn’t hold the positions they do — Biden simply takes Republicans’ priorities as they are and figures out what those priorities mean for how they can reach mutually agreeable compromise. It’s not as emotionally satisfying as the Obama approach, but it’s a lot more productive.
The most polarizing voices at the fringes suck up all the oxygen in our media environment, but, as Barro celebrates, it’s the doers in the middle who ultimately save the day, such as OMB Director Shalanda Young:
It also seems clear that OMB Director Shalanda Young was instrumental in sealing the deal. Young was a top staffer for House Democrats on the Appropriations Committee before she joined the White House, and she’s one of the few Biden officials who I’m constantly seeing praised in the press by Republican members of the House… House Republicans were more reasonable and more interested in compromise than I expected, and the White House was more effective than I expected in working with them, apparently in large part due to Young.
In an era where the polarization hawks tell us that competition is impossible and bipartisanship is dead, it continues to shape our politics (and drive Democratic successes). Biden has been one of the most effective executives in recent history — and the vast majority of his landmark legislative achievements have, to the surprise of the naysaying pundits and activists, been bipartisan.
While the slow and boring politics of compromise doesn’t work on TV and on Twitter, it works in Washington. In our era of entrenched extremism, middle-out politics is the pathway for pragmatists to avert crises and get stuff done.
Biden’s Popularism Works
As Jonathan Weisman and Reid Epstein report for the The New York Times, it’s harder for the GOP to turn Biden’s bipartisan achievements into fodder for partisan mudslinging because both sides have bought into key investments:
Mr. Biden latched on, with a renewed focus on the two most significant bipartisan legislative accomplishments of his term, the infrastructure bill and the CHIPS and Science Act. He hopes these measures will help brand him as the cross-aisle deal maker he sold to voters in 2020, appeal to political moderates who formed a core of his winning electoral coalition and impress upon tuned-out voters what he has done in office. One significant benefit for Mr. Biden: Republicans helped pass those bills.
Biden’s economic agenda, which his team has taken to calling “Bidenomics,” is a real life case study in popularism — a somewhat banal theory of politics that emphasizes doing and talking about things that are popular over those that are unpopular (duh!).
The popularism inherent in Biden’s key legislative accomplishments is hard for Republicans to ignore:
Senator Todd Young, an Indiana Republican who helped write the enormous bill aimed at revitalizing the domestic semiconductor industry, said the work on a law that he called “off-the-charts popular” had started with Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, during President Donald J. Trump’s administration. “The Biden administration deserves credit for advancing the proposal and, irrespective of the timing of its origin, helping it become law,” Mr. Young said.
The core tenets of Bidenomics are so popular and mainstream that even Republicans who voted against them are now bending over backwards to take credit for them:
As Jennifer Rubin writes for The Washington Post, the successes of Bidenomics are indisputable:
The economy has created 13 million jobs, inflation has been more than cut in half, huge investments are being made in infrastructure and green energy, wage growth has begun to outpace inflation, the first drug price controls are going into effect and the biggest corporations will finally be forced to pay something in federal taxes.
The challenge now is selling these popular accomplishments to the general public, which (for good reason) remains weary about the economy.
We argued last year that it’s Time for Democrats to Stand Up for “The Democrats”. Democrats are not perfect, but as our friend Jonathan Robinson likes to say, Democrats Are Good.
Biden and team have done a lot of popular things in the last couple years. In recent months, he has continued with his popularist streak by pivoting to the center to meet independents and swing voters where they stand.
There’s a lot to celebrate and sell.
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Tweet of the Month
Mainstreaming the Mainstream
Articles informing the big-tent from the past month…
But first, the Best of the Rest
The new reality about Latino voters that Democrats must accept by Christian Paz in Vox:
Half a year later, we have even more answers — and they confirm something that some establishment Democrats and many party operatives need to wrestle with: Republicans did make gains in 2020 with Latino voters, those gains did stick in 2022, and they could still grow in 2024. In other words, Democrats did better than expected in 2022 despite signs that their Latino support could continue to erode — signs they can’t afford to ignore heading into an election year.
He’s Deeply Religious and a Democrat. He Might Be the Next Big Thing in Texas Politics. by Adam Wren in Politico:
Many politicians start their mornings by saying a prayer or two. [Democratic State Rep.] Talarico is a bit more devoted. On a Monday morning this spring, a little more than a mile from the hulking Texas Capitol, Talarico was literally navigating the divide between church and state as he steered his 2016 Chevy Colorado pickup into a parking space on the serene, live oak-dotted campus of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. It was just past 8 a.m., and he was late for his weekly New Testament class, one of two seminary classes he took this past semester. Last August, he enrolled in seminary to get his Master of Divinity — which, with any luck, he’ll receive in 2025 in order to become a pastor, right around the time he might begin to look at running for governor in 2026.
Here’s the right way to celebrate America at 250 by Theodore Johnson in The Washington Post:
Trump is absolutely right that the 250th anniversary of the nation’s founding is an important moment. How we mark it matters. If it becomes a vehicle to pat ourselves on the back for being exceptional, we will have squandered it. If it is nothing more than a chance to spotlight all the things broken and flawed and hypocritical about our country, we will have lost a critical opportunity. Both approaches give short shrift to all who bled, sweat and died to achieve the nation we have today: The former refuses to recognize the groups who sacrificed the most; the latter denies the transformational achievements of previous generations.
Moreover, if political factions exploit the anniversary to beat on their opponents — and the majority of us remain silent — then we will be complicit in the nation’s retreat to a far less admirable state.
Democrats have a schools problem. The good news: They can address it. by Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post:
Democrats would be wise to reclaim the issue of K-12 education, starting with a recognition that the United States has long been falling behind international competitors and suffered another blow with covid. They might consider a multipronged approach at both the state and federal levels.
Why Dems Should Invest in North Carolina in 2024 by Lucas Holtz of Third Way:
Joe Biden won 25 states in 2020, and the fundamentals favor the incumbent president for the time being. If Florida is no longer a viable swing state, then Democrats must adapt their strategy and investments. The priority is obviously to hold those states that flipped in 2020, but it should not prevent Democrats from investing in flippable states in 2024—and North Carolina is indeed the most flippable. A Democratic win there would take the wind out of Republican sails and significantly limit the GOP’s path to 270, but only if Democratic donors and super PACs make the necessary investments in the state leading up to the election.
Best of The Liberal Patriot
Many Democrats don’t have a realistic understanding of the country they live in, particularly the professional class voters who throng the country’s burgeoning metro areas (and who are now a core Democratic constituency!). Despite decades of educational upgrading and the rise of “knowledge worker” jobs, this is still a working-class (noncollege) country. In 2024, two-thirds of eligible voters will still be working class according to States of Change estimates.
The Democrats’ Economic Management Challenge by Ruy Teixeira:
It's hard to convince people they’re doing better when their paychecks aren’t buying any more—and sometimes less—than they previously did. High inflation is a killer to workers’ standard of living and, crucially, to their sense of economic optimism. It is worth noting that the country’s last experience with high inflation coincided exactly with the period when the Democrats lost their former dominance as the party trusted to deliver prosperity for the country.
Why Can’t the Democrats Be More Moderate? by Ruy Teixeira:
What kind of voters do Democrats need more of? David Leonhardt had the answer in a recent column. He calls them “Scaffles”—socially conservative and fiscally liberal voters. These are cross-pressured swing voters—and there are a lot of them. Socially liberal, fiscally liberal voters vote Democratic. Socially and fiscally conservative voters vote Republican. And there just aren’t very many socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters. So the Scaffles are where the action is. If the Democrats hope to vanquish the Republicans decisively, this is where the Democrats should be concentrating.
Best of Slow Boring
The Orange Man is bad by Matt Yglesias:
The idea that Trump’s ruthless sonofabitch qualities are important to his electoral success is a wild misperception. The genuinely savvy thing Trump did was stop talking about cutting Social Security and Medicare. Pretty much any political party anywhere in the world could gain votes by ditching its most-unpopular stances. Mitt Romney could have done this in 2012 and he probably would’ve won. Some non-Trump nominee could have done it in 2020 and probably could have won. Joe Biden’s original debt ceiling strategy was premised on the idea that Kevin McCarthy was going to demand entitlement cuts and Biden could hammer him. But McCarthy just… didn’t. I like to think of this kind of popularism as true ruthlessness and am constantly imploring various Democrats to give some ground on policy, win elections, and make Republicans pay for being so nutty.
Are young men conservative now? By Matt Yglesias:
What I am surprised by is the prevalence of the misperception that there’s some bloc of young male rightists red-pilled by social media. One reason for that is that it does look like the gender gap may be largest in the youth cohort. In other words, it’s not that young men are more conservative than older men, but that they are further right relative to young women than older men are relative to their peers. But another is the fascination with a newish cohort of male influencers and digital media personalities that I think tends to lack relevant context in terms of overall social trends.
Best of The Bulwark
How Progressives Abandoned Progress For Process by Jeremiah Johnson:
Having some level of process and bureaucracy is uncontroversial. When we’re building huge urban projects, local communities should have some input in those efforts. Large industrial projects do need some level of environmental regulation to make sure they’re not dumping chemicals or otherwise causing harm. We need process to prevent bad outcomes. Where progressives err is in confusing the process being good (at times) with the process being the goal—an inherent good in and of itself.
The Key Strength Biden Brought to the Debt Ceiling Talks by Mona Charen with Bill Galston:
[Biden]’s a political realist and a pretty good negotiator. Those are his strengths. He has beliefs, but he’s not ideologically rigid as he tries to transmute those beliefs into actual policy. He is an experienced negotiator. I don’t think it’s any accident, comrades, that when there was negotiating to be done during the Obama administration, in the end, it was always Vice President Joe Biden who was sent to carry it out, in part because of his knowledge of the Senate, in part because he had the kind of temperament to do it.
Joe Biden's High-Wire Act Is (Probably) Working by Jonathan V. Last:
To be a successful Democratic president you have to disappoint every part of your coalition much of the time… Here is the key point about understanding coalition politics: Political power is a function of both the absolute size of the group AND the percentage breakdown of the group’s preference. If a group is big enough, then it is important to you even if you get only a small percentage of that group voting for you.
Best of The Welcome Party
The Second Coming of Ed Reform by Liam Kerr:
“The Democrats” cannot fight the coherent faction anchored by reform opponents. Only another coherent faction can do that. It certainly does feel like things fell apart, that the center cannot hold. And that we need a faction. One anchored by a network with significant financial and human capital, a community motivated by a shared vision that is patriotic, optimistic, and grounded in reality. If ed reform did die, it is time for a second coming.
The margins that decide whether American democracy lives or dies are far thinner than they should be. We cannot afford to accept lower than expected losses (and narrower than expected wins) as victories. If your strategy is not delivering resounding wins against a radicalized, authoritarian movement, it probably needs rethinking. This isn’t to suggest that beating Trumpism is easy. But it is a lot harder if we don’t admit that the current path is not delivering the unified opposition needed to beat an autocrat.
Even in the most Democratic-dominated state in the country, political leaders who focus *only* on the overwhelmingly white, highly educated, and ideologically most liberal “progressive activist” cohort will not be broadly popular. The two most well-known politicians in Massachusetts are a classic case. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Governor Maura Healey appear to have a lot in common. Both lawyers. Harvard grads. Live in Cambridge. Highest name recognition of any Massachusetts politicians. Beloved by progressives for battling corporations and Trump. But they are unalike in one critical way: Healey is popular, Warren is not.
There are plenty of pictures of AOC and Sanders with the far-left candidates in Chicago and Philadelphia — and plenty of stories about how teachers unions powered Brandon Johnson's victory. The only problem? None of the above endorsed Wu, much less campaigned with her. Bernie Sanders? Did not endorse (Wu campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary). AOC? Did not endorse. The Boston Teachers Union? They haven’t donated to Wu since 2019 — a year where the Boston Police Patrolmen's PAC also donated to her city council campaign.
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