The Winter of Our Discontent

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This is truly the season of Democrats’ discontent. Ezra Klein has this piece about David Shor, which is an interesting and illuminating read on its own terms but is also a window into these anxious, verging on frenzied intra-Democratic debates. You’ll find neologisms like “popularism” which is a sort of hipster, data-science rebranding of what a generation of Democrats have ridiculed as poll-tested, consultant-driven campaigning. Which doesn’t mean it’s wrong!

The idea is that Democrats, clustered in major cities and lead by a cadre of hyper-educated activists and campaign professionals, have political views that are much to the left of the average voter and much more to the left than they realize. Given the range of structural factors weighted against them – electoral college, gerrymandering, Big Lies, etc. – their only hope is to mercilessly review their policy wishlists, choose the ones that poll really well and shut up about the rest.

Klein’s article is a good window into these debates, whichever of them you think has the better part of the argument. But the real story – or the one that seems most meaningful – is the landscape in which various factions each have their own pet theories of the proper way forward for Democrats. Each argument is good as far as it goes. But step back a bit and you realize that successful political movements or parties or campaigns need to do all these things at once. What you really see is an anxious bordering on frenzied exchange defined by a common belief in looming disaster in the 2022 midterm election. Everything is suddenly existential – the threats, the proposed solutions and the necessity of getting the right strategy to avoid the first and implement the second.

And of course it’s not one disaster but the belief that this one will lock in that exclusion from power into the future, whether it’s from gerrymandering that will last through the 2020s or a Congress that, empowered by the Big Lie, will simply refuse to certify a Democratic presidential win in 2024.

I wish I could say that I’m here to peel back all this doom-casting. But I’m not. I’m not endorsing it. But all these fears and warnings and the realities that spawn them are quite real. The surprise twin senate victories in Georgia were one of the best and most unexpected things to happen for Democrats in ages. But in one way they were a poisoned chalice: they created a nominal majority and a frenzied drive to do something, anything … if possible everything to stave off what was coming: adding new states, passing federal democracy protection legislation, historic climate legislation, the biggest reboot of the American social safety net in half a century, immigration reform, rebalancing the federal judiciary.

I’m not poo-pooing these demands or questioning their urgency. Virtually every one I’ve advocated for strenuously myself. But to think that these things could all be done with a vice president’s vote majority in the Senate – and barely more in the House – was turning all history on its head. At the flood tide of the New Deal in 1937 Democrats had fully 75 Senate seats out of 96 then available. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson had 68 Senate seats. Joe Biden came to the game with 50.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying, ‘Hey, this was all wildly unrealistic. Time to move on.’ I’m trying to capture the inevitable collision between such vast expectations – ones not based on exuberance but hard necessity – and the woefully under-matched legislative resources available to accomplish any of them. That inevitably creates a volatile and potentially explosive situation within the Democratic coalition.

What makes all this suddenly more pressing is that the ground has changed over the last ten weeks. Into the summer President Biden remained with moderate but enduring popularity. His public approval hovered in the low 50s – a big accomplishment in an era of deep polarization and recurrent disaster. Then starting in August his numbers began to tumble, somewhere between five and ten percentage points. That’s a big drop in an era of ingrained polarization.

Why did this happen?

There are basically three reasons. The first and most overriding is the failed emergence from the COVID epidemic – both a public health and economic retreat. This is Delta; this is some fade of vaccine efficacy; it’s the country’s inability to get everyone vaccinated; the mix of consumer price inflation and supply chain gaps that are collectively the result of the pandemic. Who’s to blame and the precise modalities are secondary to the fact that we went into the summer thinking we were done with COVID and readying for the post COVID boom. By the end of the summer it was clear neither were quite true. That was both a big bummer on the merits and a huge sock in the face to the happy expectations of a battered nation.

This coincided with the evacuation from Afghanistan, the second big thing. I went far out on a limb saying that virtually all the press got that wrong. I still believe that. What I got wrong was the impact on public opinion. Americans haven’t cared about Afghanistan for years. Paradoxically, that’s a big reason we stayed there so long. This indifference made me think that the impact on public opinion would be limited. But that was clearly not the case. Why? My read is that this and the disappointments over reemerging from the epidemic catalyzed each other in a way that was particularly damaging for the President. The epidemiological and economic events of the summer filled the country with a growing sense that things weren’t quite right. But just what was wrong or who was to blame was amorphous. The chaotic scenes from Afghanistan and the chorus of blame directed at the White House provided an answer. It’s the President. He’s not up to the challenge of fixing things.

And then there’s the third big thing: the squabbling on Capitol Hill. A recent Quinnipiac poll gave really bad results for the President and congressional Democrats. What was striking though was that the President’s Build Back Better program, while declining in relative popularity, was still very popular. Well over 60%. But this is sort of secondary to the national mood. If you’re deeply invested in politics you’re either hoping the President succeeds or hoping he’s defeated. But what most people see is a lot of high drama arguing and nothing actually happening. And what is being argued about isn’t even that clear. It’s $3.5 trillion or less but just what’s included isn’t totally clear. The bottom line is that impotence is demoralizing. What the President wants to do can and often is secondary to whether he is able to do it. And why can’t he? Or at least can’t so far? Well, we’re back to the need for historic reform with 50 seats – a galactic mismatch between expectations and resources to meet them.

As is often the case the only path forward is through it. Declining popularity makes moving his agenda more difficult. But the only way to repair the damage is to pass it and show that he can get things done.

And here we are.

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