Tag Archives: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Learning the Right Lessons

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Politicians, like generals, often look backward for guidance rather than to the future. Just as generals, as the saying goes, always fight the last war, politicians tend to take the perceived lessons from the last campaign as inspiration for the next one. Democrats and Republicans alike are pouring over the results of last Tuesday’s election to glean nuggets upon which to base strategy for the 2022 midterm elections.

But, are they drawing the right lessons?

No one elected Biden to be the second coming of FDR

Virginia Democratic Representative Abigail Spanberger said of President Joe Biden after the election: “Nobody elected him to be FDR, they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.” Spanberger is a two-term member of Congress from Virginia. In 2018, Spanberger defeated David Brat, an ultra-conservative Republican incumbent, to become the first Democrat to represent her district since 1971. She is understandably nervous about her political fortunes in a district that Biden carried narrowly but which voted for Donald Trump for president in 2016 and which Glenn Youngkin won handily in his victory in last week’s gubernatorial election.

Spanberger is wrong historically and politically. Nobody in 1932 elected FDR to be FDR! Those who voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not have any inkling of the scope and extent of the New Deal. Roosevelt ran a cautious campaign, partly because he and his advisers did not fully understand the structural causes of the Great Depression and had not yet fully developed plans to combat the economic catastrophe. Also, Roosevelt realized how unpopular Herbert Hoover, the incumbent was, so he said little of substance, hoping to not commit any gaffes.

Politically, Spanberger is wrong. Now, it is possible that Democrats in Spanberger’s district played down Biden’s progressive agenda, but in deep blue parts of the country voters knew exactly for whom they were voting. Biden’s campaign was not shy about touting guaranteed family and medical leave, lower cost prescription drugs, universal preschool, free community college, expanded broadband, and a vigorous attack on climate change. 

In other words, all the progressive measures in the Build Back Better Bill were part of Biden’s campaign. 

The 2021 election was a defeat for progressivism

Maybe! But, it is also possible to look at the results and conclude that Republican gains came because of Democratic dithering in Washington. After all, the infrastructure package passed Congress after Election Day, and Democrats are still struggling to enact the Build Back Better Act. Terry McAuliffe, the defeated Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, begged Democrats in Washington to “get their act together” and pass Biden’s agenda. 

Would it have made a difference? Who knows? But, this we do know: Individual parts of the Biden program are very popular with voters. Passage of most of the president’s agenda, coupled with a vigorous campaign to inform voters that Democrats are legislating on their behalf (yes, working on behalf of their constituents — what a novel idea!), might have an impact next November. Part of that campaign must be to highlight the contrast between Democrats and their do-nothing Republican opponents. After all, former President Donald Trump kept promising an “infrastructure week,” but it never happened. Democrats passed a significant infrastructure bill a “mere” 11 months into Biden’s presidency. 

Democrats must compete for the rural vote

Yes, the urban-rural vote divide is real and getting worse for Democrats. And, yes, Democrats should be competitive in all demographic and geographic groups and areas. But, it is easy to over-analyze the Virginia results.

Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin outperformed Donald Trump’s 2020 showing in even the reddest counties, winning rural Virginia counties by record margins. But, that is not the whole story of the Virginia election. McAuliffe won voter-rich Fairfax County, a Washington suburb, by 30 points. Biden beat Trump in Fairfax by 42 points. Same in Loudon County, which Biden carried by 25 points in 2020, but McAuliffe won by only 11. 

The lesson here? The rural vote should be contested, but McAuliffe lost in 2021 because he bled suburban voters.

Youngkin won because he handled Trump correctly

Yes, Youngkin ran a smart campaign, cleaving close enough to the discredited former president so as not to alienate Trump’s base, but keeping Trump far enough away in order to lure moderate suburban voters. But, it takes two to tango, and Youngkin’s strategy worked because Trump cooperated, staying out of Virginia and not saying anything too damaging. Will the irrepressible former president cooperate in 2022? His track record indicates he will intervene in many races.

Republicans should nominate moderates

Youngkin is hardly a moderate, but he ran a campaign that appealed to the particular concern of Virginia voters in 2021: Outrage over the teaching of race in public schools. This is an issue drummed up by conservatives who want to push so-called cultural issues over actual policies that benefit voters. In his campaign, Youngkin succeeded in avoiding some of the more damaging pitfalls that have torpedoed conservative Republicans in the past. (See Ken Cuccinelli, an ultra-conservative candidate who ran an unsuccessful race in 2013 against McAuliffe for governor of Virginia.)

Youngkin became the Republican nominee for governor by winning an unusual ranked-choice vote implemented by the Virginia Republican Party to prevent the nomination of a right-wing kook (again, see Ken Cuccinelli). But, the Virginia template will not be the electoral structure in other states. Much more likely will be primary battles in which ultra-conservative candidates try to outrun each other to the far right to please Donald Trump. Republicans who can win primaries may not be strong candidates in general elections (see Christine O’Donnell in Delaware in 2010, Todd Akin in Missouri in 2012, and Richard Mourdock in Indiana in 2012.)

Conclusion

There are valuable lessons to be learned from the 2021 off-year election. But, it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions. Besides, the electoral environment may be starkly different in 2022. The recovering economy may be booming by next November, thanks in part to implementation of the Biden agenda. Voters may be in the mood to reward Democrats for legislating on their behalf. 

Posted November 9, 2020

 

Win More

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

What is most interesting about Governor Greg Abbott’s agenda for the special session of the Texas state legislature is not what it includes, but what it does not. There is no proposal to fix the state’s electric grid, which broke down during a storm this past winter with deadly results, leaving millions of Texans without power. The system also has been stressed during the current hot summer. But, instead of insuring that Texans have heat in cold weather and air conditioning in hot, Abbott and his fellow Republicans would rather legislate against the alleged teaching of critical race theory in schools and pass stringent voting restriction and nullification measures to guard against nonexistent electoral fraud.

Texas Republicans are not outliers when it comes to questions of public policy. Republicans everywhere are railing against critical race theory that is not taught anywhere, alleged censorship of conservatives on social media platforms, supposed cancel culture, and imagined electoral fraud while promulgating the “Big Lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election. What Republicans are not doing is proposing any measures that would improve the lives of Americans. 

The Republican strategy provides Democrats with both a problem and an opportunity. The problem for Democrats is that these cultural issues often resonate with voters, especially those in the electorate that comprise the Republican base. Cultural issues have particular import in mid-term and off-year elections when voter turnout tends to be lower than in presidential election years and when highly motivated voters — such as those susceptible to the “Big Lie” — are more likely to cast ballots. 

The opportunity for Democrats is that by pushing an agenda that improves the lives of all Americans — offering free or low-cost college education, curtailing child poverty, expanding Medicare and providing healthcare for more people, building new roads and bridges and fixing those in bad repair, and more — the party’s candidates might just swamp their opponents at the ballot box. But, not only do Democrats have to get most, if not all, of their agenda through a closely divided Congress, they then must convince the electorate that their policies are beneficial and Democrats must rally their supporters to go to the polls in massive numbers. In other words, Democrats must defeat Republicans by such awesome electoral numbers that Republican cheating — in the form of voter suppression and nullification laws — will not succeed. Of course, hypothetically, if Republicans are so brazen as to nullify massive Democratic majorities, then there is little Democrats can do. 

This strategy assumes that Democratic on-the-ground organizing will be sufficient to overcome Red-state chicanery. So far, President Joe Biden has benefited from a booming economy and his administration’s success in getting millions vaccinated. Further, the child tax credits contained in the stimulus bill are starting to be sent to eligible Americans, putting money in the pockets of people who need it. But, inflation looms as a potential problem. And, so far, Biden’s impressive policy achievements do not seem to be benefitting him politically. The president’s approval rating is relatively high, but it is stuck at virtually the same number as at the start of his term in January.

Biden and his team seem to have signed on to the strategy of what might be called “win more.” Biden’s reliance on it may explain his slowness in arguing vociferously for congressional passage of the comprehensive voting overhaul measure. Even when he came out strongly for the bill’s enactment in his speech in Philadelphia this week, Biden never called for eliminating the filibuster, a prerequisite to passage of new voting laws in Congress. There can be little question that Biden is genuinely distressed by Republican voter suppression measures, but it is also probably true that the president does not want to waste political capital on a fight — eliminating the filibuster — he cannot win.

The “win more” strategy is risky. The biggest gamble of all is the assumption that Biden will get most of his agenda through Congress. Perhaps, but Joe Biden cannot be Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Lyndon Baines Johnson for one simple reason: The current president lacks his predecessors’ massive congressional majorities. In 1933, FDR had a 59-vote majority in the Senate and three-to-one edge in the House. LBJ was not quite as fortunate. But, still, the Senate in 1965 had 69 Democrats in it and the House 295. Biden is stuck with an evenly divided Senate and a minuscule Democratic majority in the House. Moreover, both FDR and LBJ had Republican allies, but in today’s highly polarized political environment, Republican cooperation is doubtful at best. 

Democrats know they have to out-organize Republicans to have a chance at political victory. That is a daunting task because the political fight between the two parties is uneven. The Supreme Court’s validation of two Arizona election laws encourages Republicans to be even more aggressive in enacting voter suppression laws in Red states. The recent decision provides Republican legislators with a road map for their Jim Crow-like legislation, and the high court’s ruling suggests that future litigation to stop similar Republican legislation will not succeed. 

The fact is that the system is stacked in favor of Republicans. The Electoral College gives Republicans a huge advantage in presidential elections in ways not readily apparent. Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, but two Republican “losers” became president by winning a majority of electoral votes. More importantly, Democrats win presidential popular votes by piling up massive majorities in California and New York. As Politico notes, Hillary Clinton’s three-million vote majority in 2016 came entirely from California, and Biden’s seven-million vote victory in 2020 from California and New York. These are mostly “wasted” votes that do not help Democrats win either the presidency or down ballot races. Another unfair element is the notoriously undemocratic Senate, where small, in population, Wyoming has the same number of votes in the upper chamber as population-rich California.  

As fraught as the “win more” strategy is, the Democrats may have little choice but to hope that it succeeds. Given the structural advantage Republicans possess and given Republican ruthlessness in manipulating the rules — from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s successful attempt to stack the courts with conservatives to the wave of new voter suppression laws — Democrats are left with few weapons other than traditional, popular appeals to pocketbook issues.

Democrats everywhere must emulate Stacey Abrams’ successful organizing to get out the vote and turn Georgia blue in the last election. It may be all that prevents further Republican assaults on constitutional norms and wholesale destruction of our Republic.

Posted July 16, 2021

“We the People”

The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent, as old as our republic, still vital today? 

Our Constitution opens to the words, as trite as it sounds, “We the people.” It’s time we remembered that “We the people” are the government. You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force that we have no control over. It’s us. It’s “We the people.”

President Joe Biden, address to a joint session of Congress, April 28, 2021*

************

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

President Joe Biden struck two overarching and linked themes in his Wednesday night speech: Can democracy endure in the face of domestic and autocratic foreign foes? And, what is the nature of government in the 21st century?

The president condemned domestic terrorism forcefully and by name: “White supremacy is terrorism,” Biden said, promising that his administration — unlike that of his predecessor — will not ignore this danger to democracy. Foreign enemies, he noted, also pose a threat to the success of the American democratic experiment. “America’s adversaries, the autocrats of the world, are betting” against democracy. “They are wrong,” Biden forcefully stressed. “You know it, I know it. But we have to prove them wrong. We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works, and we can deliver for our people.”

An activist government is the linchpin — the linkage — between Biden’s themes: Facing down the autocratic threat and proving that democracy still works. For Biden, “We the people” are the government in American democracy. “We the people” mean all the people. And, to demonstrate that he intends to govern in the interests of all the people, Biden took both a victory lap, touting the successes of his administration in its first 100 days and proposed a bold agenda for further action in the months ahead to haul the nation into the 21st century and keep it competitive with both America’s friends and foes.

“We’ve stared into the abyss of insurrection and autocracy, pandemic and pain, and ‘We the people’ did not flinch,” the president asserted. “America is on the move again,” he touted, citing his administration’s success in delivering over 220 million COVID-19 vaccine shots into people’s arms and passing the American Rescue Plan that delivered much-needed money to most Americans, aided struggling citizens with food and rent money, and created more than 1,300,000 new jobs. When Biden announced that the stimulus package contains provisions that will cut the rate of child poverty in half, the Republicans in the chamber sat on their hands. (Are they in favor of child poverty?)

Biden touted his previously unveiled infrastructure plan, claiming that most of its provisions — from repairing and building roads and bridges to combating climate change — are really job creation programs. And, he used Wednesday night’s speech to formally announce his American Families Plan, an ambitious proposal to expand publicly funded schooling by an additional four years. Two of the additional years would make universal preschool available for 3- and 4-year-olds, and the other two would provide free community college. The proposal also expands federal assistance for those who attend four-year colleges, and it calls for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. “We’re one of the few industrial countries in the world” that still forces people “to choose between a job and a paycheck or taking care of themselves or their loved ones,” Biden noted. 

The president’s proposals — including the stimulus and infrastructure plans and the just-announced American Families Plan — represent a bold expansion of the federal government. His agenda marks a departure from four decades of subservience to the Reaganite proposition — announced in President Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address — that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Subsequent administrations — Democratic and Republican — subscribed to this notion.

But, no more! President Biden is reviving the legacy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he cited, to promote an activist government that governs in the interests of “We the people.” None of this comes cheaply. Biden proposes paying for his multi-trillion dollar plans by taxing the rich — both individuals and corporations. “I will not impose any tax increase on people making less than $400,000,” he vowed.  

The Biden programs are costly — and will be hard to pass. Republicans theoretically might support parts of the infrastructure package — particularly money to build and repair roads and bridges — but no Republicans signed onto the American Rescue Plan and none are likely to vote for the American Families Plan. Republicans argue Biden’s agenda is too expensive, expands government too much, and raises taxes on the rich — which Republicans just cut and will never support.

Lacking Republican backing, Biden has to rely on a united Democratic Party. Moderates within the party are put off by the price tag for the American Families Plan. The 50-50 split in the Senate means that Democratic moderates — like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia — hold sway over what eventually passes — if anything. Officials in the administration say Biden is “open to hearing” other ideas, Washington-speak for “let’s negotiate.”

Even if only a small part of the infrastructure plan passes and little or none of the American Families Plan gets through, Biden already has succeeded in changing the nation’s conversation. His approval ratings are high, and public support for his programs is even higher. One poll found more than two-thirds of Americans favor Biden’s infrastructure plan and his tax hikes on the rich. And, a CNN poll, conducted after Biden’s speech, showed that 73 percent said his agenda makes them feel optimistic that the nation is moving in the right direction.

In just over three months, President Biden has won wide support for a renewed activist government. Opposing a popular president whose agenda is even more popular may not be a winning ticket for obstructionist Republicans. And, Republican support for the foes of democracy — like Russia’s Vladimir Putin abroad and insurrectionists at home — may prove detrimental to the party’s prospects as an activist government provides an answer to Biden’s question about the future of democracy.

Yes, democracy is still vital today, because democracy is “We the people” governing actively in the interest of all Americans. On Wednesday night, President Biden affirmed his determination to make this so. 

Posted April 30, 2021

*All quotations from President Biden’s speech are from this transcript by The New York Times.

Learning From the Past

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One of the presumed advantages of maturity — and Joe Biden is a very mature president — is accumulated wisdom gathered through the span of a long life. Biden is not only our oldest president; he has also spent virtually his entire adult life in national politics. He has seen the system up close and surely knows what works and what does not.

Biden witnessed the last two Democratic presidents’ excessive timidity in approaching the significant issues of the day. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama suffered huge midterm defeats during their first terms because they failed to revive sluggish economies. Neither of Biden’s Democratic predecessors offered bold economic plans and both were undone, in part, by futile stabs at bipartisanship. Obama, in particular, constantly tried to pry a few Republicans from the party’s obstructionist stance, tailoring his programs and nominations — the stimulus package, healthcare reform, the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court — to appeal to moderates within the GOP. It never worked. 

Clearly, Biden learned a valuable lesson: Go bold and go over the heads of Republican leaders to appeal to Republican voters. He secured passage of a massive $1.9 trillion stimulus package early in his term. No Republicans in Congress voted for it. Biden did not wait — as Obama did — for Republicans to offer support. Instead, the new president took advantage of slim Democratic majorities in Congress to push through the rescue bill on a straight party vote. The strategy is working: Poll after poll show most Americans — including a significant percentage of Republican voters — support the relief measure. 

As Biden prepares to address Congress Wednesday evening — marking his first 100 days in the presidency — he continues to offer bold initiatives. He has proposed a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure bill, which includes, in addition to the traditional building and repairing of roads and bridges, a large jobs component, broadband coverage for the entire nation, and development of alternative energy sources to combat climate change. Other audacious plans — voting reform, an immigration overhaul, police reform, and an attack on income inequality, among others — likely will come soon.

Not much in Biden’s past suggested he would be a president with such radical proclivities. But, Biden evidently is a student of history, so he must know that high poll numbers, which he currently enjoys, can be fleeting. He must understand the fates of Clinton and Obama, as well as the lessons from the first term of one of America’s greatest presidents: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Confronted by the worst economic crisis in U.S. history, Roosevelt used his first 100 days in office to calm the financial panic and begin rolling out the programs that comprised the New Deal. Fifteen major pieces of legislation were introduced during those first 100 days. Roosevelt’s frenetic attack on the Great Depression gave the concept of “the first 100 days” meaning, and ever since, presidents have been graded, perhaps unfairly, on their accomplishments during the early days and weeks of their terms. 

This analysis is not meant to suggest that Biden faces an existential crisis as great as the Great Depression, though the threat from COVID-19 cannot be underestimated nor can the successes of the new administration in getting vaccines distributed and into the arms of millions of Americans be overly praised. But where Roosevelt faced one extremely daunting crisis, Biden faces a multitude: The pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn, climate change, immigration, income and racial inequality, abuse of power by police, and Republican attacks on democracy (voting rights and the right to protest).The list is so extensive as to make one wonder why anyone wants to be president!

Like Roosevelt, Biden is not wasting his current popularity nor public support for many of his proposals. Of course, Biden would like Republican votes in Congress for some of his proposals, but he also knows, as we all do, that the current Republican Party — in the throes of abject submission to former president Donald Trump and led in Congress by the obstructionist Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the subservient House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — is committed to opposing anything he presents.

More important in Biden’s calculations are Republican voters. He is not likely to peel away many Trump loyalists — hard right conservatives convinced Trump won the November election as well as gun rights advocates, racists and xenophobes, and cultural warriors. But, he is calculating that populist proposals — economic populism as opposed to the nationalist and racist populism of Trump and the Republican Party —  will garner support from Republican voters.

Biden is betting that the $1400 checks people received, an improving economy putting people back to work and raising wages, tax increases on the wealthy and big corporations, a jobs program in the infrastructure package, broadband expansion to rural areas, and other programs that benefit all voters will win him bipartisan support. 

So expect to hear from a bold Joe Biden Wednesday night, a president who knows surely that the only way to win bipartisan backing and break gridlock in Washington is to deliver for all Americans.

Posted April 27, 2021

A New Old Vision

It’s not a plan that tinkers around the edges, it’s a once in a generation investment in America. — President Joe Biden, discussing his infrastructure plan, March 31, 2021

Well, finally, the nation has infrastructure week!

Only this time the president is different, and he means it. Former president Donald Trump promised during his 2016 election run that he would spend one-trillion dollars to rebuild America’s road and bridges. He never revealed any plan of substance, and his constant promises of infrastructure-related events all fizzled. “Infrastructure week” became a metaphor for Trumpian plans to do this or that (remember the promises of a soon-to-be-issued plan for replacing Obamacare?). 

President Joe Biden is serious about overhauling the nation’s infrastructure. The need is acute. Any American who has traveled overseas in the last few decades has to be embarrassed about the decrepitude of the nation’s roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads, and airports in comparison to the infrastructure of other countries. And, it is not just the contrast with Europe that is revealing. The Beijing International Airport is a gleaming facility, unlike airports in American cities. The Delhi Metro is a modern wonder, putting such famed metro systems as the New York City Subway to shame. 

Biden’s infrastructure plan is bold. It represents a new way of thinking only because the political orthodoxy of the last four decades rested on Reaganite assumptions about limited government and trickle-down economics. Politicians who do not believe in the efficacy of government accomplish, by definition, little. Even if the need is great, the will to act is lacking. And, reliance on trickle-down economics was based on the erroneous assumption that the private sector would accomplish what the government refused to do. Trickle down was, as George H.W. Bush once said, “voodoo economics.” The evidence is that the vast proportion of the money the wealthy saved from lower taxes became part of their private wealth; little of it was invested in building the nation.

The president’s plan returns American political thought to an earlier age. Biden believes that America can act boldly. He often reflects on the accomplishments of Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson. He knows that in the decades between the Great Depression and the Vietnam War, Americans built a vibrant economy and defeated the Axis threat. Americans constructed the Interstate Highway System, a vision of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, and sent men to the moon. Americans know how to accomplish much.

The infrastructure plan announced this week rests on the old New Deal concept that government can be a force for public good while also returning to the idea that government policy can be a tool for social justice. If enacted, the infrastructure plan to tax major corporations that do not pay their fair share, combined with the provisions in the recently enacted American Rescue Plan, will do much to redress the tremendous inequities in the distribution of wealth in modern America caused by four decades of trickle-down economics.

Biden boasts his plan would “create the strongest, most resilient, innovative economy in the world.” Part of the proposal includes projects to generate millions of jobs and strengthen American competitiveness. The two-trillion dollar program also would accelerate the fight against climate change by hastening the shift to cleaner sources of energy and, by targeted spending and projects, promote racial equality in the economy.

Translating even part of this ambitious and bold plan into law will be a heavy lift. While improving roads and bridges enjoys widespread, bipartisan support, the nitty-gritty details about funding have frustrated progress for years. Republicans are unanimous in opposition to both the cost and raising taxes on big corporations. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell captured the Republican view, calling the infrastructure plan a “Trojan horse [for] more borrowed money and massive tax increases.” McConnell said he would not support Biden’s package “if it’s going to have massive tax increases and trillions more added to the national debt.” Oh, so now McConnell is concerned about the debt?

Some Democrats are opposed to key details of the infrastructure plan. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of coal-producing West Virginia likely will object to parts of the plan that undermine reliance on fossil fuels. Other Democrats want to use the proposal to enact their favored changes in the tax code, changes that are not universally popular. Finally, some progressive Democrats criticize Biden for not being bold enough. “This is not enough” tweeted Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “The important context here is that it’s $2.25T spread out over 10 years. For context, the COVID package was $1.9T for this year *alone,* with some provisions lasting 2 years. Needs to be way bigger.”

Even if Democrats finally unite behind a version of the Biden package, prospects for passage will be dim because of the need to gather 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is considering a fast-track budget process similar to the one used to pass the stimulus plan, but nothing has been decided yet. Or, Democrats could finally do away with the filibuster, enabling passage of not only the infrastructure package but much needed legislation to secure and protect voting rights for all Americans.

Biden is betting that going bold in the way of FDR and LBJ is what Americans want. So far, he has been right about that bet, judging from his approval ratings. His plan for big spending on infrastructure with tax increases — including on those with incomes over $400,000 annually — has the support of a majority of Americans. But, the president has been in politics long enough to know that high approval ratings last only so long (unease over immigration already may be undermining some of Biden’s popularity). The window for bold action is not unlimited, hence the urgency to pass the infrastructure plan soon. 

Now, it is up to Congress to enact the president’s new old vision.

Posted April 2, 2021

Stark Differences

The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our [the federal government’s] stockpile, it’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use. — Jared Kushner, former president Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, April 2, 2020, in reference to medical equipment to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

We need to remember, the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it’s us, all of us, we the people. — President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021.

Two stark contrasts: The Republican Party’s vision of government as some alien presence, disconnected from the everyday lives of the people who live under it; and, the Democratic Party’s belief that, in our democratic republic, government is by us for our benefit. “We the people,” as the Constitution’s preamble puts it and Biden affirmed, is the Democratic ideology; “us” against “them,” the Republican creed.

This is not new. These two conflicting interpretations of the relationship of the governing to the governed have defined American political parties from the beginning. The roles have shifted through history, with the Democratic Party now championing government as a tool for the betterment of society through creation of the social safety net and expansion of democratic practices. The Republican Party’s ideology is best summed up in President Ronald Reagan’s favorite aphorism, uttered in his first Inaugural Address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

The differences between the two parties center on competing visions of the role of government. But, in the past, both parties accepted the basic framework of American democracy: Devotion to the Constitution, free and fair elections — the results or which were honored by both victor and loser — and the rule of law. And, both parties were coalitions of differing interest and ideological groups that made compromise possible.

Now, in our highly polarized political process, the two parties consist of tribes that no longer talk to each other, much less work together for the common good. The Democratic Party has moved to the left, embracing an active government in which healthcare is a guaranteed right, the state promises a minimum standard of living for everyone, and everyone participates in choosing the nation’s leaders.

The Republican Party has not only become more conservative, but it has moved to darker places on the political spectrum, becoming an authoritarian party that shares common goals and methods with Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Hungary’s Fidesz Party, both of which have subverted the hopes of democratic rule unleashed after the fall of Communism late in the last century. A recently declassified report from the director of national intelligence asserts that the Republican Party, in collusion with the Trump White House and the party’s propaganda organs (for that is what Fox News, Breitbart, and One America News are), cooperated with a Russian campaign to keep Trump in the presidency by undermining the campaign of now-president Joe Biden.  

The report says the Russian government worked to weaken “public confidence in the electoral process.” Trump used the same strategy with his constant litany before Election Day of the dangers of absentee voting and his refusal to accept the results of the election after November 3. Trump’s intransigence convinced his supporters that Biden is not the legitimately elected president, despite all evidence to the contrary. One of the surest roads to autocracy is fomenting a belief that the electoral process cannot be trusted.

Trump has not given up. Just this week, he complained that “our Supreme Court and our courts didn’t have the courage to overturn elections.” In this blatantly anti-democratic rhetoric, the former president no longer simply asserts that the other side cheated; he now suggests that results he does not like should be ignored. It is a concept that spurred the insurrection at the Capitol in January and encouraged two-thirds of congressional Republicans to vote to throw out duly certified electoral votes. A majority of Republicans — along with Trump — were willing to sacrifice democracy to maintain political power. That is the mindset of autocrats.

Contrast the increasingly expansive and democratic vision of the Biden administration, which differs strikingly not only from modern Republican ideology but also recent Democratic thought. After the successes of the New Deal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Great Society of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Democrats moved away from embracing activist government. Note their middle-of-the-road rhetoric:

Jimmy Carter: “Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision.” 

Bill Clinton: “The era of big government is over.” 

Barack Obama: “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government.” 

President Biden, instead, is harking back to the philosophy of the New Deal and the Great Society, attacking serious problems — such as environmental degradation, immigration reform, the obscene income inequality plaguing the nation, and attacks on democratic processes — with bold programs. The first piece of Biden-inspired legislation to pass Congress was the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion program to ramp up vaccine distribution, help Americans suffering economically during the pandemic, and begin an attack on poverty through an expanded child tax credit. 

Nothing is more critical for the success of the Biden program than passage of two laws to guarantee access to the ballot. Central to the Republican march to an authoritarian government is the party’s attempts to destroy democracy — first in its refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, then in passage of laws in many states restricting the right to vote.

The battle over voting rights is central to the questions posed by the two competing visions expressed by Democrats and Republicans. Will the United States remain a democracy that  cares for the well-being of its citizens and continually expands democratic processes? Or, will the United States follow the lead of rightward drifting countries in Europe and become an undemocratic society whose leaders are not freely chosen by all voters and cling to power for its own sake?

Posted March 19, 2021

The Relief Package is a Big Deal

If former Vice President Joe Biden thought the signing of the Affordable Care Act was “a big fucking deal,” what expletive describes President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill?

The measure is, perhaps, besides Obamacare, the most momentous piece of legislation enacted in decades. Not only does the bill provide $1,400 in direct payments to most Americans to alleviate distress caused by the pandemic, but it also redirects the nation away from its recent past and renews the pledge of the New Deal in expanding the social safety net. The Democratic relief bill thoroughly rejects the governing principles enshrined since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who believed government was the problem and saw the solution to economic difficulties in policies that directly aided the rich. Biden and the Democratic Party, in channeling Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reflect the view that only an active government can cure the nation’s ills.

According to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, the relief package will cut child poverty in half and lift nearly 13-million Americans out of poverty. Unlike the stimulus package passed during President Barack Obama’s first year in office, which was too modest in a futile attempt to attract Republican votes in Congress, the Biden plan delivers a turbocharged boost to the economy. “History and a strong body of research would tell us the only way to avoid more lasting scars on households and the economy is by not doing too little,” said Ellen Zentner, chief economist at Morgan Stanley. 

The plan is bold. In addition to direct payments, the measure allows $300 per week for unemployment benefits through the summer, significantly raises the child tax credit, allocates funds for higher education, increases payments to low-income families to help with home heating and cooling costs, distributes funds to older Americans to support nutrition programs, provides housing assistance, and beefs up the vaccine distribution effort. The bill also fulfills Biden’s campaign pledge to make the Affordable Care Act more affordable for millions of Americans by expanding subsidies for health insurance for two years.

This is — make no mistake about it — a Democratic package. Not one Republican in either the House or the Senate voted for it, despite the bill’s public popularity. Polls show that upwards of 75 percent of all Americans back the relief bill, with nearly 60 percent of Republicans favoring it. That level of support is unprecedented and will put Republican candidates in a difficult spot in the 2022 mid-term congressional elections. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell anticipated that problem when he tried to preempt any future Democratic suggestions that the bill led to an improving economy. “The economy’s coming back, people are getting the vaccine, we’re on our way out of this. We’re about to have a boom,” the Kentuckian said. “And if we do have a boom, it will have absolutely nothing to do with this $1.9 trillion.”

Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi took a different tack by attempting to take credit for a bill he did not support. In a tweet, Wicker praised the “targeted relief” directed at “independent restaurant operators.” The Mississippian co-authored the amendment allotting the funds, but Wicker’s Twitter feed quickly was inundated with tweets like “Oh no, you don’t get to take credit for this. You voted no,” a sticky fact Wicker did not mention in his original tweet. Wicker’s misplaced effort to take credit only proved Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s exasperated point about Republican obstruction: “It’s typical that they vote no and take the dough.”

The relief plan marks a major evolution for the president. In his five-decade career in politics, Biden appealed largely to union workers and blue-collar tradesmen like those in Scranton, Pennsylvania where he grew up. The nearly two-trillion dollar spending package makes the crusader for the middle class also the champion for the poor. 

Biden spent most of his years in Congress concentrating on foreign policy and such domestic issues as criminal justice reform and gun control. Economic policy interested him little, but aides say the president enthusiastically has embraced his new role and is willing to use Democratic power to enact sweeping rather than incremental change. A naturally empathetic man, Biden has been moved by the unequal suffering inflicted on the poor by the pandemic. “Millions of Americans who, through no fault of their own, have lost the dignity and respect that comes with a job and a paycheck,” the president said in January. “And now, a lot of these folks are facing eviction, or waiting hours in their cars — literally hours in their cars, waiting to be able to feed their children as they drive up to a food bank.  It’s the United States of America and they’re waiting to feed their kids.”

 “We all grow,” said Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat. And, we all change, which is what has happened to the Democratic Party as it has moved to the left. The progressive tilt of the party was demonstrated in the vigorous presidential campaigns waged in 2016 and 2020 by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist. The electoral successes of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, among others, also have turned the party into a vehicle for progressive ideas. 

Democrats have embraced a host of progressive ideas such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, tuition-free college, immigration reform, and democratization of the political system. The Republican Party’s laser-like focus on tax cuts and the politics of grievance leaves Democrats as the only political players seriously entertaining ideas aimed at addressing economic and social problems. And a lack of bipartisan cooperation from the opposition means Democrats have little incentive to work with Republicans on compromises, a fact of modern political life that pushes both parties to the extremes.

The president has moved with his party. He knows the problems afflicting Americans are vast and require bold initiatives. Solving those problems is good politics. Besides. “Uncle Joe’s” gut tells him that helping the poorest among us is the right thing to do. 

Sometimes good politics and good morals align. And, the result is a very big deal, indeed.

Posted March 12, 2021

Biden the Reformer

Joe Biden sells himself as a moderate, and his entire political career has been premised on his image as a centrist who can work across the political aisle. But, the former vice president is poised, if elected, to push the most progressive agenda in decades.

Biden has stressed his moderation and fundamental decency during the campaign. He and advisers know that President Donald Trump’s irresponsibility, ignorance, divisiveness, and failed administration are driving many conservatives to back a Democrat. Pushing a radical agenda now might force some of those discontented formerly Republican voters — not to mention former Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016 — to stay away and either not vote or hold their noses and vote for Trump. 

Yet, at the same time, Biden recognizes that rising economic inequality requires a more just society, one that redresses the obscene concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Biden also realizes that any attempt to promote even a modicum of economic equality must address the systemic racism that plagues American society, which has come to the forefront under the racist incumbent in the Oval Office.

American history has alternated between eras of reform followed by periods of consolidation. The reformist impulse was particularly evident in the last century during three significant eras of rapid change. The first was the Progressive era of the first two decades of the 20th century. Progressivism was an impulse that coursed through both major parties while absorbing ideas from the Populists of the 1890s — a labor-farmer coalition dissimilar from the right-wing nationalist populism of today — and Socialists like Eugene Debs. Progressivism was a middle-class movement of Americans convinced that the concentration of corporate power and the presence of widespread corruption had undermined the nation’s democratic origins. Progressives pushed an agenda focusing on trust-busting, regulating corporate power, and enacting laws to encourage cleaner government. 

The Great Depression — America’s greatest economic crisis — ushered in the New Deal, which turned many Progressive ideas into law, such as unemployment insurance, minimum wages, and protection of collective bargaining. The administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the foundation of the modern social safety net with enactment of Social Security. His administration attempted to correct — through the tax code and regulation of corporate power — the economic inequality that marked the 1920s and contributed to the economic crash.

The New Deal — dependent on the votes of southern segregationists in Congress, then a core constituency of the Democratic Party — ignored the aspirations of African Americans. Pressure for racial equality built up after World War II, leading to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the last great reform era of the last century. Major Civil Rights legislation was enacted during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, an improbable steward of racial justice who, as a Texan in the Senate, had never manifested an interest in racial equality. But, Johnson succeeded the assassinated President John Kennedy, whose stalled agenda on civil rights and poverty Johnson proceeded to push. The new president had two advantages over Kennedy: A mastery of Congress learned as Senate Majority Leader and an active movement for racial redress goading the nation to act. Aiding Johnson was a mandate derived from his huge electoral victory in 1964. If Biden wins big on November 3, the similarities between 1964 and 2020 will be evident.

Several months ago, Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal Center for American Progress, laid out an agenda for change that drew on the three great reform movements of the 20th century. Tanden sent a copy of “A New Social Contract for the 21st Century” to the Biden campaign, which gave it a favorable review. Tanden’s essay called for extending the social safety net — paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, and expanded Medicare. She also demanded greater corporate responsibility to include consideration of the interests of workers and local communities. 

Much of what Tanden suggested has found its way into Biden’s agenda. The former vice president favors a huge jobs program, investment of up to $2 trillion in infrastructure and clean energy, raising of the the minimum wage to $15 an hour, stimulating the growth of manufacturing, and assistance with the cost of college education. Biden has also pushed a social agenda, calling for police reform while shunning the more radical proposals of the Democratic left on defunding. 

At heart, I suspect Biden remains the politician he has always been, a moderate who craves bipartisan compromise to advance the public good. But, the nation has changed and what worked decades ago is passé now. Americans are more divided than ever, and the center is shifting to the left. In adopting a program for a new era of reform, Biden is moving with the nation. But, implementation of a new agenda depends not only on a Biden victory, but a landslide victory. If the long lines in early voting are any indication, that landslide may happen.

Posted October 16, 2020

Undemocratic Republicans

We’re not a democracy. — Tweet of Senator Mike Lee, Utah Republican, October 7, 2010.

Senator Lee’s screed against democracy channeled long-standing right-wing tropes claiming the United States is not a democracy but a constitutional republic. The impetus for this view of the American social compact derives from controversies surrounding the nation’s entry into World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the defense of democracy central to persuading the American public of the necessity of intervening in the European war. Opponents of U.S. intervention pushed back by arguing that the nation was not a democracy, but a republic.

The concept became a right-wing slogan in the 1960s when Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, used it in a speech entitled, “Republics and Democracies.” Welch claimed that in a democracy, “There is a centralization of governmental power in a simple majority. And that, visibly, is the system of government which the enemies of our republic are seeking to impose on us today.” Welch’s ideas never completely disappeared, and his cramped view of the American democratic experiment found expression earlier this year in a lengthy report, “America is a Republic, Not a Democracy,” issued by The Heritage Foundation. 

I suspect Lee’s tweet was not part of a theoretical exercise about the nature of American government. Much ink can be, and has been, spilled over the Founders’ distrust of democracy (hence the Senate and the Electoral College as checks on the popular will), and the widespread 18th-century conviction that America — as a burgeoning continental empire — was simply too large to emulate ancient Athens as a direct democracy. Besides, though the free citizens of Athens gathered in assemblies, the city-state of the classical era teetered between tyranny and democracy during the Peloponnesian War — as Thucydides describes — and it practiced slavery.

No, Lee had a particular point in mind, no doubt. He, like many Republicans, is worried, specifically, about this election in which the people appear poised to express their will and throw Republicans out of the White House and the Senate. More generally, his concern is about current demographic trends that are likely to make the Republican Party a permanent minority in coming years. 

The immediate concern for Republicans is November 3, and the Trump administration, aided by many sycophantic Republicans, has been softening the country for a repudiation of democracy. Trump has been doing this by refusing to say if he will honor the results of the election — if he loses — and peacefully cede power to his successor and by priming some of his more violence-ready followers to take matters into their own hands (“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by”). The vehicle for all this is Trump’s frequent attacks on the legitimacy of mail-in balloting, a form of voting likely to be employed in disproportionate numbers by Democrats trying to stay safe during the pandemic. In Trump’s world, mailed ballots constitute “massive fraud.”

If Republicans succeed, millions of Americans will lose their vote this year through challenges to mail-in ballots and through transparent attempts to suppress the vote, such as the decree by Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott to limit drop-off locations for mail-in ballots to one per county. Abbott’s voter suppression gambit is in the courts now, but if it is approved it would mean that Harris County — a Democratic stronghold that includes the city of Houston and which is huge in size and population — would have only one drop box to serve more than four-million people.

Voter suppression has been a Republican ploy for decades. Republicans have imposed restrictive voter-ID requirements, limited times for registering to vote and actually voting, and closed voting places in areas with large numbers of minorities. Republicans keenly are aware that as the proportion of minorities and the young increase among eligible voters, Republican chances of retaining political influence diminish. Suppressing the vote is a tactic to delay the inevitable day when the GOP will no longer be an effective nationwide political organization.

Packing the Supreme Court is another Republican attempt to thwart the popular will. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, abused the system by withholding hearings on President Barack Obama’s federal judgeship nominees. Then, once Trump was elected, McConnell rushed to place as many conservative judges on the federal courts as possible as a way to curb the progressivism of emerging Democratic majorities. McConnell’s grotesque power play to deny President Barack Obama a Supreme Court appointment nine months before an election while pushing the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the high court after millions of Americans have already voted is the best known example of Republican court packing. The motive is obvious: Republicans are likely to lose the White House and Congress for decades to come, but if young conservatives are put on the bench, they will be in a position to overturn progressive legislation. At least, that is the thinking.

Democratic threats to “pack the court” are a response to Republican attempts to make the Supreme Court the last bastion of conservatism. Court packing has an odious reputation, but there is nothing in the Constitution fixing the number of justices at nine. True, the last serious attempt to increase the number of justices — by Roosevelt in the 1930s because of judicial opposition to the New Deal — is viewed as a political failure. But, while the number of justices remained at nine, what is often forgotten is that in the midst of the court-packing fight, the Court veered to the left and began to approve New Deal welfare and regulatory legislation. Historians argue about cause-and-effect in the famous “switch in time that saved nine,” but the precedent is clear. Perhaps, the looming Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act will be a harbinger of both how conservative the court will be and what Democrats will do to counter a possible turn to the right.

Voter suppression and jamming conservatives on the courts are Republican attempts to undermine American democracy. Labelling the United States a republic, rather than a democracy is an exercise in political theory not likely to impress many Americans. But, suppressing the vote and packing the courts with conservatives does affect many citizens, which is why all indications are that record numbers of Americans are likely to vote this year against the undemocratic tendencies of the Republican Party.

Posted October 13, 2020

Transparency About Presidential Health

The White House is consistent. It has been frequently less than truthful in the past, so it is no surprise that information from President Donald Trump’s doctors and spokespeople has been a muddled stew of confusing and contradictory updates about his health. Trump’s doctors painted a rosy picture of the president’s health Saturday, only to have White House chief of Staff Mark Meadows give a more downbeat analysis later. Then, Sunday, Trump’s lead doctor admitted he was less than forthcoming the day before. The contradictions continued Monday as Trump returned to the White House and said people should not be afraid of the coronavirus that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. At the same time, Trump’s doctor said the president is “not out of the woods yet.”

Contributing to the confusion has been Trump’s drug regimen, which appears to include, almost simultaneously, drugs given to treat patients in the early stages of COVID-19 and steroids offered later to combat the ravages the disease presents to a patient’s immune system. On top of that, Dr. Sean Conley, the White House physician, admitted Sunday that he had declined to share the information that Trump required oxygen Friday for fear of causing alarm. “I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude that the team, the president, over his course of illness, has had,” Conley said. “I didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction. And in doing so, you know, it came off that we were trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true.” Conley’s mea culpa was somewhat mystifying, but Conley, like most who have to report on Trump, has to please an audience of one. In addition, it is possible that Trump — who is convinced he knows everything — is directing his own medical care, such as why and when he receives oxygen and what drugs he takes. 

The Trump White House is notoriously allergic to truth-telling, but the issue of presidential health has often been the subject of dissimulation in the past. The difference today, of course, is that with the advent of 24-hour cable and social media, the absence of information — or the presence of obvious misinformation — leads to the wildest speculation that then instantly becomes the “truth” for many.

The assassination of President James Garfield

Medical bulletins painted a rosy picture of James Garfield’s condition, even as the president was in agony from an assassin’s bullet. “The president has passed a comfortable day and this evening appears better than for some days past,” Garfield’s doctors wrote on September 2, 1881, two months after Garfield had been shot twice by Charles Guiteau. Garfield died on September 19, probably from sepsis, a massive infection caused by doctors probing Garfield’s wounds with unwashed hands. Guiteau may have been right when he said, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”

Twelve years later, rumors spread that President Grover Cleveland was suffering from oral cancer, yet on July 6, 1893, the president’s personal physician said Cleveland was “suffering from rheumatism” and “from the teeth.” In truth, the president had a lesion on the roof of his mouth, but Cleveland did not want the public to know, especially during a crash of the stock market. The tumor was removed successfully aboard a yacht moored off Cape Cod, and the story became public only twenty-five years later.

President Woodrow Wilson and Edith Wilson on tour just before the president suffered a series of strokes in 1919

Woodrow Wilson suffered several bouts of ill-health while attending the Versailles Peace Conference after the end of World War I, including a case of influenza (though probably not, according to a Wilson biographer, the notorious “Spanish” flu, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide from 1918-1920; other historians disagree). In September and October 1919 Wilson suffered a series of strokes while campaigning for Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and its League of Nations, an international organization that Wilson hoped would preserve world peace. The public never knew that the left side of the president’s body was paralyzed. Doctors said the incapacitated Wilson suffered only from “nervous exhaustion.” Wilson spent the rest of his term hidden in the White House and conducting virtually no business while his wife effectively ran the government as de-facto president.

The public also never knew how sick Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at the end of World War II. Already in declining health by the time he ran for a fourth term in November 1944, Roosevelt was weakened by congestive heart failure and extraordinarily high blood pressure when he traveled to Yalta in the Soviet Union in February 1945 to meet Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The outcome of the Yalta conference set the stage for the postwar world. Averell Harriman, an envoy for Roosevelt during the war years, later said, “At Yalta, I believe, [Roosevelt] didn’t have the strength to be quite as stubborn as he liked to be.”

Roosevelt’s deterioration in 1944-1945 was not his first health problem. He had been stricken with polio as an adult in 1921, but the public knew little of his condition. The press was discouraged from photographing Roosevelt being helped out of cars or in his wheelchair. Roosevelt disliked drawing attention to his paralysis, probably from a mixture of vanity and fear that images of him in a wheelchair might demonstrate a weakness suggesting he was not up to the task of combatting the Great Depression. But, vanity is one thing; concealing medical conditions that might impair a president’s job performance is quite another.

Hiding the health of an American president is more difficult today than in the past. The public demands full disclosure, and doctors routinely offer statements after presidents undergo routine medical procedures and annual physicals. Those statements are not always fully transparent, because, after all, a doctor’s loyalty is to his or her patient — in this case a president — and not the public. 

Perhaps the president who was most transparent in discussing his medical condition was Jimmy Carter, who in late 1978 insisted his aides forthrightly announce that the president was canceling appointments for a day because of a “an aggravated hemorrhoid problem.” Carter deserves compliments for being forthcoming, but hemorrhoids are just an embarrassment, not a serious medical problem. President Trump suffering from COVID-19 is a national security issue, and the public has a right to and a need for — especially with the election just a month away — full disclosure of his medical condition. That, so far, has been wanting.

Posted October 6, 2020