My Jan. 7 hopes for the Democrats have not only been met but far exceeded. The Biden administration’s handling of covid-19 hasn’t been perfect, particularly since the delta surge, but it’s a dramatic improvement over the Trump administration. Biden and congressional Democrats pushed through a stimulus that was larger than I expected. While the fates of the budget reconciliation and infrastructure bills are not clear yet, the Democrats will likely pass multiple provisions this year that will truly help people. And the president has taken some really positive steps I didn’t expect: appointing to judgeships public defenders, Muslims, Black women and others who usually aren’t chosen; making Juneteenth a federal holiday; and ending the war in Afghanistan (even if the execution was flawed). Importantly, Biden and the Democrats pushed much of this through on party-line votes, seemingly fulfilling my hope that they would finally realize that most of the GOP isn’t interested in working with a Democratic president on anything.
But here’s the big problem: The Republican Party not only did not moderate; it grew more extreme. The restrictive voting laws and election audits. The bans on teaching about racism. GOP court appointees issuing outlandish rulings such as the Supreme Court’s refusal to block Texas’s six-week abortion ban from going into effect. The dangerous and perverse resistance to efforts to aggressively fight the spread of covid-19. All of it adds up to a party unchastened by the shock of the Capitol insurrection.
On Jan. 7, I did not expect the Democrats to get rid of the filibuster, pass new voting rights laws or pursue judicial reforms such as adding new justices to the Supreme Court; after all, the Democrats would have only very narrow majorities in the House and Senate. But I also did not think such steps would be absolutely essential. Now, I do. Republican radicalization needs to be met with a proportionate Democratic response.
And we just aren’t seeing that response. One reason, of course, is that the slim Democratic majority is big enough to address the world I foresaw on Jan. 7, with a less extreme GOP, but not with this even more extreme Republican Party. But I’m convinced the issue runs deeper. There are a lot of signs that Democrats don’t fully grasp the extent of the GOP’s radicalization or accept that it must be addressed aggressively.
Many in the party remain cautious, incrementalist and obsessed with bipartisanship. It’s one thing for West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin III, in a state that Trump won by 39 percentage points in 2020, to defend the filibuster, but Sen. Christopher A. Coons in Delaware, where Biden won by 19 points, is also bristling at the idea of changing the rules.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, at 83 the oldest member of the Supreme Court’s liberal bloc, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), 88, refuse to retire while Democrats have the power to choose their replacements. Moderate Democrats in Congress spend more time criticizing the progressive ideas of people such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) than the anti-democratic behavior on the right. And state-level Democrats aren’t taking aggressive steps, either. Where is the blue state moving a bill using citizen enforcement, like the Texas abortion law, to limit gun rights?
In July, Biden said the election laws such as the one passed in Georgia are “the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history.” Eight days later, he defended the filibuster. Biden could emphasize the GOP’s radicalism while also openly acknowledging that he doesn’t have the votes in Congress to address it. But his current posture doesn’t even make clear that he truly understands the problem.
Maybe the Democrats will ultimately pass a big voting rights law or judicial reforms. But for now, the party’s main strategy seems to be using the 2022 elections to defeat Republicans at the state level and secure Democrats bigger majorities in Washington.
The 2022 elections should certainly be part of the Democrats’ strategy, but it can’t be the whole thing. The 81 million people who voted for Biden ultimately do need to turn out in big numbers next fall. But that participation should come with a condition: Moving forward, the Democratic Party should commit to actually fighting back aggressively against the Republicans.
Biden’s first year isn’t likely to end in the policies that America needs to genuinely confront the Trumpified GOP. But it should end with a Democratic Party that finally and fully grasps what’s wrong — and is committed to candidates and policies that will fix it.