On Day One, Biden Can Start Winning the Midterms

In a few days, Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi will take possession of the most coveted prize in U.S. politics: unified control of the federal government. They shouldn’t expect it to last — and they should govern that way.

That means moving both aggressively (to get people back to work) and cautiously (to avoid the kind of overreach common among newly elected presidents). And it will require following the most important political maxim in today’s low-trust climate: Support any policy that “does exactly what it says on the tin.”

Job No. 1 (and 2, 3 and 4) is delivering a rapid economic recovery. A big, quick Covid relief bill such as the one Biden unveiled last week would go far toward achieving that, which in turn underscores the need to get something done fast rather than advance ideological pet projects. As negotiations proceed over what and how much to include in this and future relief bills, Democrats should favor easily understandable policies — like sending $1,400 checks to everyone — rather than convoluted and opaque measures.

The sense of urgency is political as well as economic. Midterm elections typically go poorly for the incumbent party. The analysis of data scientist David Shor is instructive: Even if House Democrats matched House Republicans’ historically stellar performance in 2002, in which they won 51.9% of the popular vote and gained eight seats, gerrymandered districts mean Democrats could expect to gain only a couple seats. The second-best incumbent party midterm performance in recent history, Democrats’ 49.4% vote share in 1998, correlates with a 229-206 Republican majority.

In the Senate, Democrats have a relatively favorable map. There will be winnable open races in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, and Ron Johnson will be defending his seat in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, zero Democratic incumbents from Trump states are on the ballot. That said, the incumbents running for re-election in Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and even New Hampshire and Colorado aren’t exactly safe.

Under the circumstances, it’s tempting for progressive activists to push full steam ahead on as many fronts as possible in the next two years, regardless of consequences.

That would be a mistake. For starters, even maximum pressure from the base to push Democrats left is unlikely to have much sway with senators such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin or Montana’s Jon Tester.

But it’s also just reckless. Watching the disturbing events of this January unfold, progressives should take seriously their own warnings about the perilous state of American democracy. If Democrats lose power, it’s not clear what their road back looks like. So they should take seriously their obligation to try to win.

The big risk is that hubris or posturing will get in the way of basic governance. For example, California’s newly appointed senator, Alex Padilla, tweeted last week that “the next Covid relief bill must include a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers, domestic workers, and others who kept our communities going.”

That’s a nice idea and doubtless a way for Padilla to establish himself as a figure in national politics. Having a prominent Latino senator make this call will embolden immigration activists to join him, which may encourage scores of safe-seat Democrats in the House and Senate to hop on the bandwagon as well.

There’s just one problem: It’s not going to happen. An immigration bill wouldn’t be eligible for the budget reconciliation process, there aren’t 10 Republican votes to beat a filibuster of an immigration reform bill, and Manchin is not going to backtrack on his vow to preserve the filibuster for the sake of a bill that’s unpopular with his constituents. Going down this road will produce infighting and dissension, open vulnerable incumbents to Republican attacks, delay Covid relief and, to repeat, fail to bring about actual immigration reform.

That’s why the focus should be on highly visible benefits. Biden’s Rescue Act proposal features a more generous version of the Child Tax Credit along with enhancements to the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. The goals here are worthy, but the heavy reliance on tax credits and what the political scientist Suzanne Mettler calls the “submerged state” ensures that most people who benefit from these ideas won’t realize it. Explicit benefits would be much better.  

Similarly, instead of being coy about it as they were during the 2020 campaign, Democrats should be loud and proud about the fact that the state and local financial assistance they are pledging to deliver in the next relief package is funding the police —and that, by opposing state and local aid, Republicans are in effect defunding the police.

Less visibly to the public, Biden should make it a priority to fill the open seat on the Federal Reserve. Putting someone who strongly favors full employment, such as Julia Coronado, would help ensure that fiscal stimulus isn’t offset by premature monetary tightening. Biden cannot afford to settle for a slow recovery. He needs to break 21st century growth records in 2021 in order to position workers for strong wage gains in 2022.

Biden also needs to do everything in his power to center the national political agenda on popular progressive ideas such as raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana and investing in clean energy. Progressives often tell themselves that this is exactly what they intend to do before getting derailed by things like linking Covid relief to immigration amnesty.

As Jonathan Bernstein points out, the issue is not that Biden, Schumer and Pelosi are already thinking about the midterms. That’s how politics works. The question, as always, is how well it works. For Democrats, the key to success in 2022 is a disciplined agenda in 2021.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. A co-founder of Vox and a former columnist for Slate, he is also host of "The Weeds" podcast and is the author, most recently, of "One Billion Americans."

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