If Democrats hope to do something extraordinary next fall — keep their slim majorities in Congress — their best chance is to do something extraordinary now and pass the bold, popular, paradigm-shifting infrastructure projects and safety-net programs they believe in.
That is the clear lesson, as I read it, from Tuesday’s election results. In historical terms, the outcomes were well within a range that should be considered normal. The party that wins the White House almost always, the following year, loses the Virginia governor’s race and fights strong headwinds in New Jersey. And with former president Donald Trump relatively muffled and not on the ballot, Trump-phobic Republicans and right-leaning independents throughout the country came home to the GOP.
A return to normality may be good for the national blood pressure, but it is bad news for the Democratic Party’s hopes of maintaining its razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate.
With rare exceptions, newly elected presidents suffer a setback — what President Barack Obama once called a “shellacking” — in their first midterm election cycle. In 2010, under Obama, Democrats lost 63 House seats. Next year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., can afford to lose maybe four.
I don’t see how Democrats could look at such prospects and conclude that their best course of action is to be timid. I believe their only hope is to be bold — to try to change the political odds by changing the political landscape.
One of the moderates whose seat will surely be targeted by the GOP next year, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (Va.), counsels caution. Referring to President Biden, she told the New York Times: “Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”
But nobody elected Franklin D. Roosevelt to “be F.D.R.” either. Nobody understood in 1932 what a transformational figure Roosevelt would prove to be or how dramatically his New Deal would change the nation for the better. The greatest leaders don’t get buffeted by the political winds. They find a way to make their own weather.
The two massive bills Democrats are trying to pass would give tangible help to all American families that include small children (with two years of pre-kindergarten schooling) or seniors (with increased access to home care). They would offer health care to millions presently uninsured. They would lower prescription drug costs for seniors.
They would make the biggest single investment in affordable housing in the nation’s history. They would — if Pelosi gets her way, and I hope she does — guarantee for all workers four weeks of paid family leave.
They would jump-start steel-and-concrete infrastructure projects across the country, creating good-paying jobs.
They would bring broadband Internet access to communities that don’t have it now. They would make huge strides toward transitioning the economy to clean energy.
In short, enacting the infrastructure bill already passed by the Senate and the Build Back Better bill being negotiated and written in the House would be a humongous deal. And while “go big or go home” may be a cliche, it is advice Biden and the Democrats should heed.
Will Republicans falsely accuse Democrats of being “socialists” who want government to control everything? Of course they will — whether Biden’s ambitious agenda becomes law or not.
Will the GOP claim that Democrats are trying to do too much given their tiny majorities in Congress? Most assuredly — and most disingenuously, since most Republicans now refuse even to consider voting for measures they have supported in the past, caring more about denying Biden a “win” than doing what is best for their constituents.
Once Democrats pass Biden’s big bills, they should sell them to voters — trumpeting what’s in the legislation rather than lamenting what had to be left out. And they should rediscover their lost genius for bumper-sticker shorthand. “New Deal” and “Great Society” are masterpieces of the genre; “Build Back Better,” not so much.
If, as I suspect, Republicans find that attacking this transformational down payment on America’s future proves counterproductive, they will surely resort to Trump-style demagoguery — witness the way Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin concocted an issue out of critical race theory, which has never been taught in the state’s schools. My advice to Democrats: Don’t bring a briefing book to a culture war.
Democrats should not retreat on cultural issues but instead should fight lies with truth. Explain that when Republicans say “critical race theory” they really mean “aspects of American history that they hope will make White voters uncomfortable.” Explain that the Biden plan gives more funding to police, not less. Be loud and be proud.
Democrats may or may not succeed by pressing forward. But they will almost surely fail by standing still.