The President’s party almost always loses ground in Congress in the midterms. But Democrats have the chance to defy the normal political gravity and gain ground in 2022—if they go big in 2021.
America is still reeling from the historic crises of COVID and the economic devastation that followed. With many millions of Americans still unemployed and tens of millions more struggling, a large bipartisan majority of Americans is looking to government to deliver solutions that meet the scale of the crisis.
Democrats are sometimes afraid of overreach. The much greater risk is of going too small.
Proposals for economic relief and recovery have strong, bipartisan support—from direct relief checks to a $15 minimum wage, from extended unemployment to student debt cancellation; from a wealth tax to major investment in job creation.
Imagine a world in 2022 where COVID is nothing more than a terrible memory; the economy has pulled back from the brink; unemployment is virtually non-existent; wages are rising, new jobs in clean energy and care are being created by the millions—and voters know it’s the Democrats who did it. It is this environment that would allow Democrats the chance to defy gravity and gain seats in both chambers.
Democrats are sometimes afraid of overreach. The much greater risk is of going too small. Consider the following polling from the last month:
- A CBS poll found that 39% of voters think the economic relief package is just right, while 40% think it’s too small, and just 20% think it’s too big.
- A Navigator poll found that 64% of voters say they’re more concerned the government won’t do enough to help people impacted by COVID, vs. only 36% who are more concerned the government will spend too much.
- A Data for Progress poll found that with a 55% majority, most voters say Democrats in Congress should pass a larger relief bill as soon as possible, vs. only 35% who prefer that Democrats pass a bill with Republican support.
The Biden administration and a few Congressional Democrats have held out hope for bipartisanship. This is unlikely to materialize. Republicans have every incentive to block economic recovery. If in two years, basic economic security is still in tatters for millions of people, Republicans will attack Democrats on that basis: “You put Democrats in charge and two years later, are you better off?” It won’t be fair—since when Republicans are in power, they do even less for anyone but billionaires—but it will work.
Instead of courting Republican votes, Democrats should relish the opportunity to force Republicans to cast roll call votes against popular measures like a $15 minimum wage. That approach will only work if the popular measures come up for votes, pass, and go into effect in time for voters to feel the difference in their lives.
The razor thin majorities in both chambers are an obvious challenge. This path isn’t easy—but it’s the only choice that meets the need, and the only path to continue to govern beyond two years.
The impasse over a $15 minimum wage is emblematic. Biden and the Democrats ran in 2020 promising to deliver on this popular measure and Biden wisely put it in the American Rescue Plan. But after the parliamentarian’s opinion, Democrats appear to have virtually given up. The White House has ruled out overruling or firing the parliamentarian (as Majority Leader Trent Lott did in 2001 in order to pass the Bush tax cuts), and Senate Democrats are expressing powerlessness in the face of procedures they could circumvent. Meanwhile enough Democrats express a religious reverence for the filibuster to consign any minimum wage increase to whatever 10 Republicans will agree to: nothing.
Voters need to hear from Democrats how they’re going to deliver a $15 minimum wage, not why they can’t. As Yoda put it, “Do or do not, there is no try.”
Without a serious course correction, here’s what failure means:
- First of all, we lose the opportunity to pass a $15 minimum wage, benefiting millions of working class families.
- Second, it leaves most voters with the distinct impression that even with Democrats in the White House and Congress, they can’t or won’t get it done, and nothing really changes despite the promises.
- Third, Democrats lose the electoral benefits two years from now, created by a stronger economy and rising wages that follow passage of a minimum wage increase.
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The problem goes beyond minimum wage. Every proposal that goes through the meat grinder of Congress tends to get smaller, weaker and delayed. That is true even if you only need 50 votes—nevermind winning over a Republican.
Democrats as a whole will pay the electoral price if they fail.
The precedent created by letting one or two moderates derail popular legislation supported by the rest of the caucus is truly dangerous. While we’re hoping for a massive jobs and recovery package later this year, no such thing is guaranteed—and Democrats who give up on a $15 minimum wage could easily end up with a jobs package that is too small and too late.
Meanwhile, protecting the filibuster means Democrats are sacrificing the opportunity to pass almost any other legislation. That means taking off the table many legislative priorities that also bolster Democrats’ longterm electoral prospects and strengthen the voice of working people, including democracy reform (HR1, HR4, DC statehood) immigration reform and the PRO Act.
There is an element of unfairness in assigning blame to the Democratic Party as a whole, when a majority of Democrats in the House and Senate support the agenda we need and seem willing to use all the power they have to deliver. However the problem is this: that Democrats as a whole will pay the electoral price if they fail. The costs will not be simply borne by a few moderates who buck the Democrats’ popular agenda items.
Instead, the failure to enact those agenda items will hurt Democrats up and down the ballot, in at least two ways. First, it would leave Democrats with a thin affirmative record of success to run on. And second, without serious governmental action, the economy as a whole will be much weaker, which favors the party out of power, who can run on ‘change.’
Therefore, the onus is on the Democratic Party as a whole and its leaders (especially Biden and Schumer) to use every carrot and every stick available to ensure Democrats stay together and pass a bold agenda.
Despite historic turnout in 2020, Democrats lost seats in the House. Even with financial advantages, Democrats didn’t win a single US Senate seat in a state Biden lost, and lost the Maine Senate seat that should have been winnable. Democrats’ popular majorities are heavily concentrated in a few metropolitan areas, which is exacerbated by GOP gerrymandering. If Biden and Democratic leadership don’t bring the entirety of their party along, these obstacles will overwhelm Democrats in 2022. It may be another decade or more before Democrats have another opportunity to govern on the federal level.
Meanwhile, Republicans don’t need to change Senate rules to accomplish their agenda. Republicans’ only real priorities are tax cuts, appointing federal judges, and deregulation. The first can be done through reconciliation, the second through majority vote, and the third through executive action.
Democrats’ only chance of reversing historical precedent in 2022 is through running on a set of accomplishments. Mass vaccination, true economic recovery, and concrete, highly visible, and permanent measures that materially improve the well-being of the tens of millions of working people whose lives have been getting steadily harder for decades. If they flinch, they will forfeit a window of opportunity that may not reopen for a decade or more.
The foundation of Republican politics is a cynicism that says to everyday people that government never can, and never will, deliver meaningful material gains for you and your family. In this moment, Democrats should be extremely loath to prove them right.