For the first time in a decade, Democrats have won the Presidency and both houses of Congress, giving them a greater ability to pass Joe Biden’s agenda, which includes economic relief measures and legislation tackling climate change and immigration. Many in the Party want to embark on major structural changes, such as abolishing the Senate filibuster and granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. But, because the Democrats control only fifty Senate seats, moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia hold outsized power, and have already spoken with skepticism about some of their party’s more ambitious plans.
To talk about the state of the Democratic Party, I recently spoke by phone with the political commentator Ezra Klein, who recently left Vox for the New York Times, where he is an opinion columnist and the host of the podcast “The Ezra Klein Show.” Last year, Klein published the book “Why We’re Polarized,” which argued that Americans have solidified their political affiliations around issues of identity and culture, and that structural changes, such as eliminating the filibuster, might save the political system from more partisan gridlock. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the mistakes of the Obama Administration, the best way to persuade moderate Democrats to go along with the Party’s agenda, and how the media will change in a post-Trump world.
You recently wrote a column titled, “Democrats, Here’s How to Lose in 2022. And Deserve It.” What do you think Democrats need to do over the next two years to succeed?
Make it such that Americans feel a difference in their daily lives from Democrats having the power to govern. And that’ll mean a really strong rollout of vaccinations because nothing is going to make more of a difference to people’s lives than an effective vaccination campaign, but it also means passing the kinds of legislation that Democrats promised Americans they would pass in order to get elected in the first place.
As obvious as this advice sounds, it is not typically what Democrats do. In many ways, it is not what they did during Barack Obama’s Presidency, which was the last time they had a governing trifecta. They tend to let the filibuster stop them in the Senate. Even when they don’t let the filibuster stop them, they have a tendency to construct plans in a very complex way, such that the benefits take some time to begin delivering. The Affordable Care Act, which I covered very closely, didn’t begin delivering health insurance on a mass scale for four years.
You don’t get reëlected on things that are not yet happening in people’s lives. The stimulus in 2009 had what was called the Making Work Pay tax credit, and it was designed to be invisible. It was literally designed so people would not notice they were getting it, because there was some behavioral science research the Obama Administration got into that said people would spend more of it.
You don’t get reëlected on things people don’t know you did. So Democrats have to govern in a way where they actually pass things, and the things they pass have a direct, noticeable effect on people’s lives before the next election. And one reason it’s so important for Democrats to feel that sense of speed and urgency is that the electoral geography has become more and more biased against them. And then the final thing is that they can’t create an opportunity for Trumpism to roar back in two years.
Parties in power typically lose seats in a midterm. It seems intuitive to me that, if Democrats can pass economic legislation that would make people’s lives better, that might mitigate the likely losses. But there is also an argument that there is a group of people in the country who would like to see divided government and who don’t like big change, and that part of the response to Obama in 2010 was not just that people were not feeling the effects of the Affordable Care Act but that at least some people felt that change was happening too quickly. Do you think that’s a reasonable argument?
I take the point that public opinion is sometimes thermostatic, that it moves in the opposite direction of whoever’s in power. There’s a lot of political science research to that end, and I assume it’s largely correct. At the same time, I believe—having done a lot of political reporting, and having watched how policy feedback loops operate and how parties do and don’t develop durable majorities over time—that there is more frustration that comes out of failed promises than comes out of well-kept promises. If you look at things like Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security and even, over time, Obamacare, there’s just no doubt that they created positive feedback loops for the parties in power. I think if you look at other countries, there’s been a lot of research on things like cash transfer payments. They seem to help the parties in power. Now, if you pass unpopular things, including things, by the way, that may be important and need to happen, you’re going to get hit in the election. And it’s also true that you don’t control the media and you don’t control how people understand things. And we are fractured, and there’s a lot of disinformation. And so that’s going to make it hard. But I think that only makes it more important that the policy passed speaks for itself as clearly as possible.
Let’s say I’m completely wrong. Let’s say that if Democrats leave the filibuster in place and don’t pass nearly as much of their agenda as they promised or actually pass very little, that in that world Democrats would do no worse in the election, or maybe even ever-so-slightly better. They would lose somewhat fewer seats. I would say it is still worth having passed legislation that dramatically helps people in their lives, that they expand democracy or deepened democracy in important ways, because you leave a policy legacy.
You mentioned the necessity of defeating Trumpism, and in the piece you write, “This is the responsibility the Democratic majority must bear: If they fail or falter, they will open the door for Trumpism or something like it to return, and there is every reason to believe it will be far worse next time. To stop it, Democrats need to reimagine their role. They cannot merely defend the political system. They must rebuild it.” There’s obviously a lot of truth to that, but Trump’s rise in 2016 came after a President who a majority of the American people thought had done a successful job governing. And so I wonder if we overstate the degree to which, at least in America in 2020, it’s about ineffective governance, even if broadly we can say that increases populism’s appeal.
I definitely don’t think we overstate that idea in America, because I think we actually almost never talk about that idea. I don’t at all think there is a robust discussion about the ways in which government paralysis over an extended period of time has actually sickened the system and made it more dysfunctional, more problematic. I think that, still to this day, the dominant view in Washington is that, well, maybe in a divided country, we just shouldn’t get things done. I think the dominant view in Washington is still that we’re so polarized that we need something like the filibuster to encourage compromise, even though it obviously does the exact opposite. I think there’s an unbelievable level of whistling past the graveyard on the systemic defects of the American political system. And that doesn’t just apply to Trump. I think it speaks to the appeal that Obama had running as a change candidate in 2008. In some ways, it speaks to the appeal George W. Bush had running as an outsider candidate in 2000. There is a reason Americans don’t like politicians associated with Washington—obviously, Joe Biden, in this case, being an exception. But, after Trump, the exception that proves the rule. When neither party reliably passes the agenda it promises, it is going to create a rising background level of frustration and disengagement. It just will.
I am open to a lot of different ways of addressing this, but actually what stuns me about both parties in Washington is how little they care that they routinely do not do what they promise voters. I actually think this is changing in the Democratic Party. Over the last couple years, we’ve seen Harry Reid come out against the filibuster and Barack Obama come out against the filibuster. Joe Biden said he would consider it. Like he said, it depends how obstreperous Republicans are. I think there is a change happening here, but it took a really long time. And the degree to which politicians just price in that they’re going to run for office, constantly promising people things that are never going to happen—what do they expect is going to happen?
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