July 12, 2021

I think Jeff Greenfield, alas, is right: It's hard to expect an FDR or LBJ level of transformative change from President Biden when Biden has neither the congressional majorities those presidents had nor the support of key Republicans (or any Republicans, for that matter).

In 1933, FDR had won a huge popular and electoral landslide, after which he had a three-to-one Democratic majority in the House and a 59-vote majority in the Senate. Similarly, LBJ in 1964 had won a massive popular and electoral vote landslide, along with a Senate with 69 Democrats and a House with 295....

Further, both Roosevelt and Johnson had crucial Republican allies. In the 1930’s, GOP Senators Robert LaFollette and Frank Norris were ardent advocates for organized labor. In the ‘60s, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen gave LBJ crucial help in getting his civil rights agenda passed. When Medicare became law in 1965, it passed with 70 Republican votes in the House and 13 GOP votes in the Senate. In today’s Washington, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell have been successfully working to keep Republican support for Biden’ policies at precisely zero.

There's opposition even among some Democrats in Congress to Supreme Court expansion or big electoral reforms. There's opposition to filibuster reforms.

Greenfield says the long-term solution for Democrats is:

Just win more.

... The only plausible road to winning their major policy goals is ... to win by winning. This means politics, not re-engineering. They need to find ways to take down their opponents, and then be smarter about using that power while they have it.

He says Democrats have a story to tell voters:

They certainly have issues to campaign on. In the few weeks, we have learned that some of America’s wealthiest people have paid only minimal or no federal income tax at all. (Jeff Bezos even got a $4,000 child tax credit.) ... the jaw-dropping nature of the report—followed by a New York Times piece about the impotence of the IRS to deal with the tax evasions of private equity royalty—confirmed the folk wisdom of countless bars, diners, and union halls: the wealthy get away with murder.

For a Democratic Party whose core theme is to bring more fairness into American economic life, these reports represent a huge cache of political ammunition. They underscore why Biden wants tougher tax enforcement, a global minimum corporate tax, and an end to some of the most egregious (and perfectly legal) tax outrages. It is—or should be—an unrelenting theme part of the Democrats’ arguments. So should a near-daily reminder, in cities and towns across the county, about the businesses and homes the massive Covid relief package has saved, and about the totally unified Republican opposition to that plan. That message—along with specific accounts of what a major infrastructure program would do—needs to be delivered at a granular level from now until November 2022.

But Greenfield writes:

Of course this is a whole lot easier said than done. A political climate where inflation, crime and immigration are dominant issues has the potential to override good economic news. And 2020 already showed what can happen when a relative handful of voices calling for “defunding the police” can drown out the broader usage of economic fairness. (It’s one key reason why Trump gained among Black and brown voters, and why Democrats lost 13 House seats.)

But Greenfield writes as if the fact that "inflation, crime and immigration are dominant issues" is something that just ... happened. It didn't. It happened because right-wingers shouted in unison about these issues until the mainstream media declared them to be "dominant issues," which made a lot of mainstream voters believe they are "dominant issues." And the same is true with "defunding the police," which remains a top issue primarily because right-wingers won't stop talking about it and because the mainstream media continues to hang it around the necks of all Democrats, even the ones who don't advocate it.

In other words, the right forces issues onto the agenda much more effectively than mainstream Democrats do. Which leads me to a short piece by The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik in which President Biden is praised for not being a rabble-rousing trash-talker like his predecessor.

The Brooklyn-reared boxing trainer Charley Goldman, who crafted Rocky Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight champ of the nineteen-fifties, once made a wise statement: “Never play a guy at his own game; nobody makes up a game in order to get beat at it.” He meant that there was no point getting into a slugging match with a slugger or a bob-and-weave match with a bob-and-weaver. Instead, do what you do well. Damon Runyon, another New York character of that same wise vintage, said something similar about a different activity: if someone wants to bet you that, if you open a sealed deck of cards, the jack of spades will come out and squirt cider in your ear, don’t take the bet, however tempting the odds. The deck, you can be sure, is gaffed on the other gambler’s behalf....

An instinctive understanding of this principle was part of the brilliance of Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign.... Donald Trump invented a game: of bullying, lying, sociopathic selfishness, treachery, and outright gangsterism, doing and saying things that no democratic politician had ever done or even thought of doing, and he did it all in broad daylight....

Biden, by contrast, insisted that the way to win was not to play....

It looked at the time dangerously passive; it turned out to be patiently wise....

Biden won and remains fairly popular; he got a big COVID relief package through -- but now he seems stuck. Maybe it's good if he's presidential (in the pre-Trump sense of the word) and above the fray. But should every Democrat act that way? Haven't previous presidents benefited from aggressive messaging by other members of their party, while they remained statesmanlike?

Can't somebody in the Democratic Party work harder on Democratic (and anti-Republican) messaging? And aren't there ways of being aggressive without being ignorant or thuggish in the manner of Trump?

I don't know what the right style would be. But Democrats can't "just win more" doing only what they're doing now.

Published with permission from No More Mister Nice Blog.

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