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Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Biden Administration?

 More than a month ago I was listening to two of my favorite people, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, talking about the state of the nation, and McWhorter referred to the book he is now finishing about wokeness.  He said that the text already refers to "President Biden," on the assumption that Biden will defeat Trump.  I was riding in my car when I heard that, and I yelled loudly, "NO! DON'T DO THAT!" because it struck me as tempting fate.   We don't know who is going to win, and we don't know how long it will take to confirm their victory.  Yet fivethiryeight.com now gives Biden a very solid chance of winning--around 85%--expects the Democrats to add a few seats in the House, and gives them a better-than-even chance of controlling the Senate.  This column on that site asks what Democratic control would lead to, and spends most of its time predicting that centrism will triumph.  While stressing once again that we do NOT know what is going to happen on November 3 and after, I will make a few suggestions of my own.

If Joe Biden wins, he, like Barack Obama, will take office at a moment of profound economic crisis.  That means to me that he will face the same test that FDR did in 1933 and that Obama did in 2009: to show the American people, within two years, that he has materially improved their lot.  Because Roosevelt passed that test, his large majorities in the House and Senate increased further in 1934 and again in 1936.  (We'll look a little later at what happened after 1936.)  Obama, on the other hand, passed a stimulus that might have kept things from getting worse, but did not rapidly make them get better, and then put all the Democrats' time and energy into the ACA, whose benefits would take years to become apparent.  As a result, in my opinion, he lost control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 election and had to fight a series of holding actions for the rest of his two terms.  Democrats at the moment are so obsessed with Donald Trump, that they are discounting the possibility that the Republican Party might have a renaissance without him.  If a Biden Administration can't rapidly help the American people in this new economic crisis, adding jobs and protecting mortgage holders (as FDR did) and renters, another 2010 looks to me quite possible.  Biden will, of course, face unprecedented deficits when he comes into office thanks to Trump's tax cuts and the pandemic, but he has already promised to increase taxes on incomes over $400,000. To that I can only say, the higher the better.  Anything like this will require doing away with Senate filibusters--and that is the one sweeping institutional change that I recommend.

Biden has another equally important and almost unprecedented task: to show that the federal government can function effectively.   At least three of our most important cabinet departments, State, Justice, and Interior, have been sacrificed to Republican prejudices and Trump's political needs.  The Post Office is also in serious trouble and the EPA has essentially worked for four years to put itself out of business. The FAA appears to have let us down badly over Boeing's 737 Max.  Instead of simply handing out jobs based on demographic balance, Biden needs to find ambitious, determined men and women who can get these institutions back on track, and give them the authority to do so.  That is what both Lincoln and FDR did in our previous crises.  It would help our political culture and our media culture enormously if we could get the public focused on what the government is actually doing.

Action on immigration is extremely important as well.  In the last debate Biden called for a path to citizenship for our 11 million (if not much more) illegal immigrants, who now live in terror of deportation.  This is essential for many reasons, not least because it will allow them to become voters, with vast consequences.  In the meantime, however, I do not think he should be in a hurry to restore the new flow of immigrants into the country to much higher levels.  We coped more easily with the Great Depression, as I have pointed out many times, because Congress in 1924, five years earlier, had already brought immigration almost to a halt.  A similar pause now might also serve us well.

On the foreign scene, Biden will undoubtedly begin with well-publicized meetings with our NATO allies to show that we once again support that alliance.  He would be well advised to put forward some vision of normal relations with China, including a willingness to compromise on some of our differences about maritime rights.  He might also give some thought to continuing the peace talks that Trump has gotten underway in Afghanistan.  Stopped clocks are right twice a day, and neither the Afghans nor the nation need that endless war.   

Climate change is at least as serious as Biden made it out to be in the last debate, and he certainly needs to put serious proposals forward to deal with it, as well as returning to the Paris Accords. Yet there will be enormous resistance to truly drastic steps.  I would recommend that he make this a three- or four-year project, beating the drum, stressing the terrible effects such as wildfires that we are already dealing with, and accepting anything he can get right away without sounding as if the problem is solved.  Several of Roosevelt's most impactful measures, such as the Wagner Act and Social Security, passed in 1935.  That's a precedent to keep in mind, one that might also apply for serous financial reform.

Democratic activists, meanwhile, are pressing for new steps to change the political balance in both Congress and the Judiciary.   One is electoral reform, which has already gotten through the House and should be pushed through the Senate.

Activist Democrats are pushing for more radical measures to change the political balance in both the Senate and the judiciary.  Such attempts were also common in the era of our other divisive crisis, the Civil War.  The Republicans increased the size of the Supreme Court under Lincoln and then decreased it again to prevent Andrew Johnson from filling a seat, only adding another justice after Grant was in office.  Lincoln during the war made a concerted effort to get new western states into the union to balance the south after the war was over, and Johnson stopped it.  The  admission of new states remained profoundly political all the way up until 1912, when New Mexico and Arizona (that had been territories for about 60 years) finally came in.  I do not think that returning to such measures would improve our political climate.  In the Senate, it might be easier just to win over a majority of voters in certain hitherto red states (as is already happening in Arizona and perhaps Georgia) than to make D.C. or Puerto Rico states.  Regarding the Supreme Court, we should remember that FDR's attempt to pack it in 1937 was the greatest disaster of his administration.  The controversy tied up the Congress for the first six months of his second term, before ending in a humiliating bipartisan defeat, and his huge majorities secured only one important piece of legislation before he lost them in 1938.  The same thing could happen now.

Never, in my opinion as an historian, has our government worked as badly as it is working now, and never has public interest in it fallen so low.  Rather than focus on specific measures, we need to show, once again, that it can work.  If a new administration does that many new things will become possible.  If it cannot, then the Trump Administration will become just one symptom of a long, possibly terminal decline.

6 comments:

Unknown said...

Well said, David. Precisely because a Biden administration would need several years for the results of its policies to influence voters, I cannot help thinking the new administration's most urgent priority has to be to build the pieces necessary to win in the House and Senate in 2022. The Congressman John Lewis Voting Rights Act passed the House this summer, but is stalled in the Senate. If the Democrats retake the Senate, they can pass this act and weaken voter suppression efforts. If there is a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens too, these might help flip many purple states blue and supply the foundations of a durable majority coalition, perhaps even enable a long overdue political realignment. I too suspect it is best to avoid efforts to pack the courts or bring in new states, but passing a new voting rights act would require weakening the filibuster. Although you are right that FDR's efforts to pack the Supreme Court stalled his New Deal for a while, the threat of packing the Court led to Justice Roberts' famous "switch in time that saved nine." If the filibuster is weakened, the Court would know that if it went too far to the right, it could be packed, and that sword of Damocles might serve as a deterrent to judicial extremism.

Bozon said...

Professor
For many Americans, the light of political party betrayal, and the failure of our system, the inability to rehabilitate it, has only dawned slowly, if at all, even.

You end with a plea, to take heart, speaking now as a Democrat, and assuming a Democratic administration can turn some of the bad working government, around, to at least work, as it has occasionally in the past.
"Never, in my opinion as an historian, has our government worked as badly as it is working now, and never has public interest in it fallen so low. Rather than focus on specific measures, we need to show, once again, that it can work." DK

It was always a low bar, never long maintained, and has now slipped far out of reach.

All the best

Bozon said...

Professor
Just a quick question. I think I am losing my mind slightly.
I had quoted your last paragraph, but do not recall the last sentence there now, which I like very much. Had I misquoted it? I edit my posts sometimes.
All the best

Unknown said...

"To that I can only say, the higher the better. Anything like this will require doing away with Senate filibusters--and that is the one sweeping institutional change that I recommend." If the Democrats take the Whitehouse and the Senate, and continue their majority in the House, then why would they allow the same level of Republican stonewalling via the filibuster that occurred in the Obama administration. And why would they allow blue lining of federal judges they nominate for the federal judiciary. Today's Republicans are vicious; do not adhere to any tradition or Senate rule in pursuit of their objectives. To get anything done to benefit this country, i.e.., infrastructure, medical care, pharmaceuticals, race, inequality, etc., a Democratic led government should clear the decks of roadblocks, including changes to the ultra-conservative Supreme Court, if necessary.

Energyflow said...

If elected the evidence of corruption will forestall legislative programs much as russiagate has done. Perhaps it will stop approval by electoral college if immediately deemed serious by state legislatures. Biden's odd statements show acelerating mental decline. This bodes ill. Violence is being prepared for by boarding up of businesses. Some mail in voters already regret their vote. Twitter and others censor non Democrat leaning news. Pravda was a party organ as well. Sad times.

Deranged Millennial said...

The Fourth Turning was correct. The boomers are rounding into their last crisis! Gen X will wreck you guys (for numerous reasons) and then us Millennnials will have to pick up the smoking, burnt out, chinese-sold pieces of our American society and get the train back on the rails. I pray my children are not as shameful as boomers are...