President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress are intent on getting legislation passed before their political support evaporates following the 2022 midterm elections. Democrats have reason to worry because their congressional majorities are slim, and typically, the party in power loses both House and Senate seats in the midterms. By January 2023, the Democrats’ opportunity to effect meaningful change may be over.
Unfortunately, “going big” with the Democrat’s proposed “Building Back Better” (BBB) legislation is only possible with the vote of the 50th senator. Because all Republicans and Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have objections, the president’s package of new social programs cannot cobble together 50 votes. Moreover, these same two senators are not prepared to change the Senate cloture rule – which requires 60 members to end debate on most topics and move to a vote. The reality on the ground is that today’s Congress simply does not have the large Democratic majorities that permitted presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s to pass groundbreaking social reforms.
It is time for the White House and the Democratic Party to stop seeking improbable, time-consuming legislative wins. Smaller victories are preferable to drawn-out policy battles that offer little hope for success. The only issue that should be non-negotiable for Democrats is preventing Donald Trump and/or “Trumpism” from regaining the presidency. This alone is the largest threat facing our democracy since the Civil War. To prevent a Trump resurgence, Democrats must step back and reset priorities leading up to the 2022 midterm elections. Events that have transpired since Biden took office must be part of the calculations moving forward.
First, Democratic legislative plans were upended this summer when the delta variant swept across the country, again making COVID-19 the president’s No. 1 priority. The White House was correct to devote additional resources to getting more Americans vaccinated in order to avoid a second public health crisis. The confusion over school openings and booster shots, as recommendations change week by week, makes the pandemic a slippery advisory of undefined duration. The pandemic resurgence could not be avoided, and legislative expectations must now be revised.
Second, Democratic moderates and progressives have been unable to compromise on the final architecture of the massive BBB legislative package. House moderates are eager to move forward with the “hard” infrastructure legislation, already passed by the Senate, with a reduced version of the “soft” $3.5 trillion BBB social package. Progressives are insisting that BBB is non-negotiable and that it is impossible to make policy choices between child care, the elderly, education, the climate crisis and immigration reform. In addition, Democrats cannot agree on a proposal to increase taxes to pay for the social package.
Third, the hope that following his defeat Trump would lose his political dominance over the Republican Party has not materialized. Trump has held his coalition together by finding enough loyalists willing to perpetuate the “big lie” that Democrats stole the national election. Trump has demonstrated enough influence to guarantee that his handpicked candidates can win Republican congressional primaries throughout the nation in 2022. This will be the springboard for him returning to national office in 2024 with an agenda of rewarding liars and punishing truth tellers who disagree with him.
Last week a well-known conservative, Robert Kagan, published an essay on the state of American democracy that sent shock waves through the political establishment (“Our constitutional crisis is already here,” Washington Post, Sept. 23). Kagan believes that Trump and his allies are willing to go to any length to ensure his victory in 2024 and that he must be stopped to preserve democracy.
Kagan believes that the Trump game plan to flood state legislatures with loyal supporters willing to change election laws, giving partisan Republicans the power to overturn election results in the next national election, is already in place. Kagan writes, “The Trump movement is less about policies than about Trump himself. It has undermined the normal role of American political parties, which is to absorb new movements into the mainstream.” All citizens who value our system of government should read this well-reasoned commentary and be prepared to work tirelessly to defeat Trump.
The Democratic majority in Congress is razor thin. If a Democratic senator dies in a state with a Republican governor, all bets are immediately off. The White House and Democrats in Congress should obtain the best deal they can on infrastructure, resolve the debt and budget issues as quickly as possible and move on to the real crisis – Republican attacks on election laws and voters’ rights. Republican leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that his members will vote against every Democratic proposal. It is time to stop negotiating with Republicans and move forward with vigor.
Biden wants to bring all of his campaign promises to fruition in one grand legislative package. However, even if the Democrats are successful, a Republican takeover of Congress in 2022 followed by a Trump victory in 2024 would quickly reverse many of these gains.
This must be the year to assemble a national legislative firewall around the state election offices to insure full and fair voting in both the 2022 midterms and 2024 national election. Without accomplishing this goal, democracy will lose the constitutional crisis that is already upon us.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.