All Political Power is Unitary

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the South Lawn of the White House on August 5, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
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All political power is unitary. In the rare instances when I’ve given advice to people who have political power or money to support people who do, this is the central point I’ve emphasized. All political power is unitary. You can’t be gaining it in foreign policy and losing it on the domestic front. It’s all one thing. And this is particularly important right now for Democrats looking at what the President can accomplish during these critical two years in which Democrats hold both the White House and the Congress by the thinnest of margins. In fact, in political terms it is the most important thing happening right now.

Yesterday Axios ‘Sneak Peak’ blared this: “1 big thing: Biden faces Dem defections”. The story is about Democratic representatives and Senators in marginal seats trying to distance themselves from the situation in Afghanistan and President Biden. “Many moderate Democrats and their aides are huddling with campaign consultants over how to handle the setback in Afghanistan,” as they put it.

This is a cliche Axios storyline, entirely in line with the elite DC political reaction to recent events we’ve been discussing. But if it is an Axios comfort-zone storyline it’s one they know really well. Wobbly, Sunday show going Democratic moderates is their métier. And in this case it’s real.

Now, I don’t think we should be terribly concerned that these Reps. want some distance from the President on Afghanistan or in the broader downcast climate driven mostly by a resurgent COVID. Whatever happens in Afghanistan isn’t going to be determined by a few Reps in marginal districts. If nothing else President Biden has shown that he is immovable on the core question of departure. What is really important is that Democrats are looking at a window of six to eight weeks which will decide the fate of the President’s fiscal, infrastructure and climate agenda. That is September and October basically and whether we’ll end this window with the two conjoined bills in something like their current or proposed form on the President’s desk.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it’s time to panic. In fact, I’m fairly confident it’s all going to get done. But I’m a bit less confident than I was two or three weeks ago because, as I said above, all power is unitary.

The mechanics of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan really shouldn’t have anything to do whether we pass critical climate legislation or refundable child tax credits. But it has a lot to do with it. Elected officials want to stay close to a popular President and show independence from a less popular one. And we are going into a period in which the President and Democratic leaders in Congress will need to keep literally every Democratic Senator on the same page and all but three Reps in the House. It’s not a great time for the President to look weak or getting beat up politically. But here we are.

It will make Kyrsten Sinema more truculent and preening. It will drive more antics from the likes of the turbulent and meddlesome Josh Gottheimer.

So what’s to be done? Well, that really depends on who you are and where you are. But clarity is helpful. There’s a good chance Democrats will lose unified control of Congress – and thus the ability to pass legislation – next year no matter what they do. Realizing that can actually be a bit liberating since it allows you to focus on passing as much important legislation as possible without too much distraction of calibrating it for political protection. If you get the critical legislation passed the consequences of losing congressional control are significantly reduced. After all, Democrats will have at least two years with a Democratic President after the 2022 elections. Of course, what is added to this, what is clarifying is that Democrats political prospects are almost certainly bettered by passing the President’s agenda. But even if they weren’t it would be the wisest course. Substance and political self-interest both point in the same direction.

What it all comes down to is that the President’s approval numbers don’t terribly matter. As a political matter, the situation in Afghanistan doesn’t matter that much. All that really matters is passing the President’s agenda over the next two months. Passing critical legislation is why you elect people in the first place. And passing big legislation builds political power.

The power to accomplish all this is 100% in Democrats hands right now. They just have to stick together to get it done. They need to keep stragglers from straying. The public gloom over COVID not being over makes that harder. The situation in Afghanistan makes that harder. But getting that central, critical task done is really all that matters.

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