Making Sense of the Big DC Summer #2

June 7, 2021 12:25 p.m.

Sometimes a writer will take a bundle of ideas that have been floating around in a lot of other peoples’ heads and commit them to paper with clarity and concision. If you are one of the other people in whose mind the ideas have been floating, seeing this happen can be both illuminating and annoying. But if someone else wrote them down before you did it likely wasn’t just a matter of speed. It was because you hadn’t done the work of taking the inchoate impressions and feelings that occupy all of our minds and whittling them down to concrete assertions and arguments that others can readily understand. We don’t really know what we think until we are able to commit it to the written word.

One recent example of this is an article David Roberts, then of Vox, wrote last December. It was called “Joe Biden should do everything at once: How to succeed in hyperpolarized politics: run a blitz.” Roberts brought together a lot of ideas. But the central one was based on the nagging failures of the Obama presidency and the irking successes of Trump’s: in short, building up political capital, sequencing, persuading, all the over-fancy clever strategies you can think of don’t matter. You take the power you have and do everything you can as quickly as possible. It’s all zero-sum. Pacing doesn’t help. It just slows you down. Do everything at once and you will have created new legal or appointive facts that aren’t easily undone. Just as important you’ll show supporters the pay off for their support, their political work, their enthusiasm and motivate them to do more of all three.

This advice is particular to the political experience of the last decade. But the essence of it is found in centuries of military thinking, the essence of which is that you always want to be on the attack or more specifically that as much as possible you want to be holding the initiative, acting and have other reacting to you rather than the other way around. Legislating and governing isn’t a war. But it shares some characteristics with it certainly. And it is more like a war in a highly polarized age than in a more consensual one. Act and make sure others are reacting to you. Or even better, act and act again before the other guys are reacting to the first thing.

This all gets highly abstract of course and I would expect someone to say, okay great, Josh, but how does this help with Manchin and the 60 votes thing? And yeah, touche! But the point is that in a highly polarized political environment all the forces are arrayed against legislative action, all the gravity is pushing in the opposite direction. So only concentrated bursts of activity can shift that equation. If your response is ‘give it time’ you’re probably in the process of losing. It’s easy to get bogged down in process and miss this big picture. I fear that’s what is happening right now. And we’re moving into a critical few months where a bunch of things will either get done or not.

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I flag Roberts’ article because I’m saying a lot here about the need to do things quickly, that speed matters, momentum matters as much as the substance of how you craft the laws. And Roberts’ argument is a clear distillation of a lot of what I’m arguing.

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