As we watch Donald Trump flail and his sycophants fade into irrelevance, it’s good to begin thinking about what Democrats might accomplish if the different factions decide to work together and get things done. After all the sturm und drang, Trump has lost, and we now have to deliver whether we have total control of Congress or not, so that we can build stronger majorities in the 2022 midterms.
There is plenty we can do regardless of whether we win those two Georgia Senate seats, but it sure would be a gamechanger to win them to prevent the GOP from stonewalling progressive legislation. I believe those two races will rise or fall together there, and I believe right now that we will win. The entire progressive movement will do whatever we can to help. Whatever Stacey Abrams wants in terms of support, she should get, as it is her and her network of allies’ efforts that have gotten us this far.
Democratic Unity That Gets Something Done
Today, though, I want to spend a moment envisioning what Democrats might be able to do if we united and pushed for change together.
First, I want to talk about what the kind of unity that actually gets shit done looks like. True unity is not the absence of vigorous debate on policy or on political strategy. What it is instead is having all those debates play out in the legislative and governing process, and then bringing everyone together through mutual respect and a willingness to work out our differences, so that we actually pass legislation. It is also working with the Biden administration to enact new executive orders and regulations that make a tangible difference in people’s lives.
We can have vigorous debates without backbiting... Let me pause here a moment to talk about the fighting that is already going on. Centrist Democrats like Abigail Spanberger and Kurt Schrader -- before the election had even been called for Biden, before we knew the final results on a lot of House races and those two Senate races, before we had a chance to really dig into the data -- immediately began attacking progressives for everything that went wrong in an election where we had just won the presidency and kept the House. AOC fired back quickly in an interview in the NYT, where she talked about the work she had done supporting swing district colleagues, all of whom won their races, and where she pointed out that the losing candidates often had a deficit of investment in digital organizing. Thankfully, proving what a smart and strategic person she is, Con. Ocasio-Cortez followed up with this great statement in The Hill, which I agree with 100%:
There are, at least in the House caucus, very deep divisions within the party, and I believe that we need to really come together and not allow Republican narratives to tear us apart... [With a slimmer Democratic majority] it’s going to be more important than ever for us to work together and not fight each other.
I am more on AOC’s side on the specifics of her argument -- progressive groups and activists did more to turnout the voters we needed in this election than anyone else -- but more importantly, her unity perspective should prevail. The internal finger-pointing (as opposed to the healthy issues debate mentioned above) should stop, at least right now when we don’t even have good data to analyze the results. In any case, can’t we all just acknowledge that Republicans are going to call us all socialists no matter what? That to hurt Democrats, they might seize on any ill-advised slogan some activists throw out in a demonstration, or simply just make stuff up about us? There is plenty of time for analysis, positioning, and debates on where the party should go, primary fights, etc. down the road.
The Democratic Economic Agenda
What we should be focused on right now instead is figuring out what we can accomplish together that would make working people in this country believe in the Democratic Party again.
I know COVID and short-term economic relief is top of the agenda, as it should be. I’m guessing McConnell will finally agree to some kind of relief package around December 11, when the government shutdown will happen without getting an agreement done. McConnell won’t agree to very much, but at least some recovery money will be moving after that deal is struck.
After we do the early work on COVID and economic relief, the first big economic issue we should focus on is a big ‘Buy America’ infrastructure package. I know it doesn’t sound very sexy, but there are a lot of things for Democrats to love in a well-crafted infrastructure package:
- It will be very difficult politically for McConnell to block it. Infrastructure bills have a long history of being bipartisan, and Trump promised repeatedly (without ever doing anything to move it) that he would make it a priority and invest a trillion dollars into it. You add to that the fact that Republican senators are going to like spending money on things like roads, bridges, and airports in their states. It will put McConnell in a hell of a box to block it.
- You can put a lot of things to mitigate the climate crisis in an infrastructure package. Weatherizing and insulating all government buildings, and converting many of them to green sources of energy. Starting the conversion of military bases and equipment to being more carbon neutral. Changing government procurement and contracting policies to prioritize the greener companies. Adding more mass transit services. Government spending can drive the conversion to solar and wind in a very big way.
- An infrastructure package can deliver a lot for the labor movement, and not just new jobs. Making sure all jobs are prevailing wage is a big thing. Putting teeth into the Buy America provisions of government contracting is another thing that Joe Biden has already promised. Rebuilding schools that are falling apart is a priority for teachers. Here’s another major example: if there were language in the bill, or in an accompanying executive order by the president, that all government contractors had to make it easier for unions to organize to get those contracts, it would be a major boon to the labor movement -- and it would be really important if McConnell ends up blocking the confirmation of new National Labor Relations Board commissioners.
- An infrastructure bill can be a big plus for racial justice as well. You can structure it to make sure minority-owned businesses get a lot of the contracts, and you can make investments in the schools, roads, and bridges that will be the most important to helping communities of color.
Putting Mitch McConnell in a tough political box and doing great things for climate change, labor, and racial justice at the same time would be a powerful opening bid on getting something big done for the American people. And it would be a great way to build Democratic Party unity, bringing together labor, environmentalists, and communities of color, and providing aid to some sectors of the business community as well.
There are two other areas where we can put McConnell in a box as well: criminal justice and immigration reform. Both have long histories of bipartisan support. Trump bragged extensively about the modest criminal justice bill passed during his term. George W Bush, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio have all made efforts at getting immigration reform passed in the last two years. DACA can be revived with an executive order on January 20, but pushing for major new bills in those areas will be a great way to show Biden wants to deliver on behalf of the multi-racial coalition that won him his presidency. Both issues should be things that the entire Democratic Party can get behind.
Finally, I would argue that with McConnell threatening to block so much of Biden’s agenda, the new president should go into overdrive in signing a whole new set of aggressive executive orders. If McConnell wants to play hardball on appointments, fine. Biden can still govern via laws already passed that keep the opposition party from stopping appointments. But even more importantly, Biden should call McConnell’s bluff and raise him. The American Prospect published a brilliant set of executive order ideas in its Day One Agenda article, which were good ideas even if we had won the Senate, but now are the best ways to govern. Forcing government contractors to allow easier union organizing is a great example: if McConnell wants to play games in terms of Biden’s ability to help the labor movement, there are big things he can do through executive orders.
Delivering for the American People Will Deliver Us More Power
There’s an important political point here. Midterm elections are, even more than the election we just went through, all about turnout. We have to energize and motivate Democratic voters to vote, and we won’t have Trump around to do that anymore. But we will have Mitch McConnell, whether as Majority Leader or as a huge barrier on everything in a 50-50 Senate.
Joe Biden is a centrist who likes to reach across the aisle in a bipartisan fashion. He is an honorable man for wanting to reach out and give the Republicans a chance to do the right thing. But Mitch McConnell is not going to be conciliatory, and we should harbor no illusions that he will work with us in good faith on anything. Biden must stand up to McConnell, face him down on some issues, and govern aggressively in spite of McConnell’s attempts, which we know are coming, to block just about everything we want to do. Biden’s executive orders can do a great deal for working people, a great deal for our voters, and for all voters; and they will show him to be a leader ready to take big actions no matter what McConnell tries to do to block us.
Such a political dynamic going into 2022 is far more appealing than letting McConnell decide what Biden will do as president. Watering down the Democratic agenda to appease Republicans looks like weak sauce to American voters and signals that the establishment is still in control of the government. We have to position our party as the fighters for the people.
Joe Biden will be such a relief to see as president. Decency, empathy, humanity, integrity -- shit, the COMPETENCY -- versus the hot mess of a president we just had. It will be a delight to see Biden in the role instead of Trump. But there has to be more than that: he has to show that he can be a president who delivers tangible benefits to the American people, whether McConnell tries to stand in the way or not.