If this keeps up, Democratic voters could stay home in 2022, those congressional majorities could be lost, and then we’d really see some inaction and disappointment.
That disappointment is already building. A Post report quotes W. Mondale Robinson of the Black Male Voter Project on activists’ frustration in Georgia, the state that gave Democrats control of the Senate, with the failure to pass voting protections and a $15 minimum wage:
“I think the frustration is at an all-time high, and Biden can’t go to Georgia or any other Black state in the South and say, ‘This is what we delivered in 2021,’ ” said Robinson, whose group believes it reached 1.2 million Black men in Georgia. “Black men are pissed off about the nothingness that has happened . . . Does it make the work harder? It makes the work damn near impossible.”
It’s the job of activists to criticize the administration, to point out elected leaders’ shortcomings, to advocate for change, to fight against compromise and complacency, to always tell those with power they ought to be doing more.
But the core of the problem is that expectations for a Democratic president will never be met. The only question is how profound the disappointment will be.
That’s true for Republican presidents too, but the difference is that the case they make to their voters is always less about policy progress than it is for Democrats. For the Republican base, Donald Trump’s victory, and his continued presence in office, was itself the point, a big middle finger to liberals, to diversity, to modernity, to everything they hated. Any actual policy changes he made were just gravy.
You can argue that Biden overpromised, but that’s because every presidential candidate overpromises. No candidate says, “Here’s a list of 20 things I’d like to do, but let’s be honest, if even three or four of them pass Congress, it’ll be a miracle.” When legislating is hypothetical, it’s easy: I’ll present this great plan for health care or climate or voting rights, everyone will realize how important it is, and it will become law. Candidates don’t talk about their agenda being subject to horse-trading, painful compromises, recalcitrant narcissistic senators or procedural roadblocks.
Right now we’re in the midst of a complex and difficult legislative moment, with a large infrastructure bill and an even more ambitious social investment bill grinding through Congress’s creaky machinery. But even if they both pass in the end (which they probably will), and even if the second bill does tremendous good even after getting whittled down (which it will), the political benefit to Biden and his party will be modest at best.
“Getting Things Done,” that eternal goal to which all politicians pay homage, may or may not be necessary for a party to win the next election, but it is absolutely not sufficient. No one ever won a midterm election because in the prior two years they passed a bunch of bills.
In fact, the opposite is usually true: Meaningful legislation is inherently difficult and controversial, which mobilizes your opponents against you without doing enough to inspire your supporters.
We’ve seen it over and over again. In the two years after his landslide election in 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, and a slew of programs on the environment, housing and many other needs — then in the 1966 midterms, Democrats lost three Senate seats and 47 House seats.
Bill Clinton suffered terrible losses in 1994, which some attributed in part to his failed attempt at health-care reform. But how different would it have been if that reform had passed? Barack Obama passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, then suffered a midterm loss just as bad.
It’s likely that for the remainder of his presidency, Biden will see every setback magnified in the media (“Dems in Disarray!”) and every triumph quickly forgotten. The most important factor in the public’s general mood — the state of the pandemic and with it, the economy — is only partially in his control. To make things worse, Republicans and the conservative media are doing everything in their power to extend the pandemic for as long as possible.
If passing worthwhile legislation isn’t going to do much for Biden politically, what could? Only one thing: Trump.
Trump is the one force that can animate Democratic voters and get them to the polls, as he did in 2018 and 2020. Though a recent Pew poll found that only 44 percent of Republicans want him to run for president again, just about every Democrat is horrified by the idea.
The more Trump visibly moves toward a possible 2024 run, the better it is for Democrats, who may be able to translate their voters’ loathing for Trump into turnout. Much as they might wish elections were about substance, only an election about personality can forestall their defeat.
It’s nothing for anyone to be happy about; Trump is a poison in our national bloodstream, a virus that sickens everything he touches. But if you want Democrats to keep making even the compromised, partial progress on policy they’ve managed so far, he might be all you’ve got.