Hard Lessons Democrats Have to Learn for 2022

Jan 21, 2021
Ezra Klein, New York Times Opinion

President Joe Biden’s inaugural address was an extended argument for why America, with all its faults, is still worth believing in. “Through struggle, sacrifice and setbacks, our better angels have always prevailed,” he said. “In each of these moments, enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward.” It was a far cry from Donald Trump’s inaugural speech, four years ago, which was an extended argument for believing in Donald Trump.

Still, Biden takes office in a country where nearly two-thirds of Republicans believe Trump won the election. The idea that a decisive speech can change everything, or anything really, reflects an older era of political communication, when more of us listened to the same outlets, and when political identities were less entrenched. Today, the best hope Biden has of bringing the country together lies in policy, not rhetoric. As I write in my column this morning, he needs to make people’s lives better — and fast.
To do that, Democrats are going to have to learn some hard lessons from both the Obama and Trump eras. From the Obama era, they need to learn that excessive complexity, or delay, robs policies of their political power. The central tax cut in the 2009 stimulus was designed to be invisible. The Affordable Care Act didn’t begin delivering health insurance on a mass scale until four years after its passage. Both policies were too small to solve the problems they confronted, in part because congressional Democrats thought voters cared more about legislative price tags than actual outcomes. The Democrats’ disastrous 2010 wipeout was, in part, the result.

From the Trump era, Democrats need to learn that paralysis empowers populists. When government stops working on people’s behalf, or seems to, voters will turn to charismatic outsiders who promise they alone can fix it. As such, if Democrats want to avoid future Trumpian figures, they can no longer meekly accept congressional dysfunction and federal incompetence. That begins with fixing the filibuster, which is, today, the central impediment to Democrats fulfilling the campaign promises they made to Americans. But it doesn’t end there: Democrats need to do more than state the importance of democracy. They need to actually deepen American democracy. This is their chance, and their true principles will be revealed by what they do with it.

In all this, Democrats face a ticking clock. Midterms are typically rough on the president’s party, and losing even one Senate seat would end Democrats’ control of Congress and thus their ability to govern. That gives Democrats much less room for error than they had in 2009. Then, their congressional majorities reached 60 in the Senate and 257 in the House. They will start this session with 50 senators and 222 House members. If they are to avoid a midterm wipeout — and a possible rehabilitation of the Trump brand — they need to govern well, and they need Americans to feel the benefits of their governance fast.
“This is a fight not just for the future of the Democratic Party or good policy,” Senator Bernie Sanders told me. “It is literally a fight to restore faith in small-d democratic government.”
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