Opinion | Congratulations, You’ve Won the White House. Now What?

In the short term, should Joe Biden win the election and move into the White House, he would take office with a Democratic Party unified in its opposition to all things Trump. The question is how long would that last before leaders of every liberal interest group circling the new administration begin to get restless.

In answer to this question, Carter Eskew, a top strategist on Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, wrote by email that

Biden became a unity candidate in response to an overwhelming, almost feral desire to limit Trump’s damage to one term. When Trump leaves, Democratic unity, I fear, may be close behind. Unlike Republicans who have essential agreement around economic and social policy, our Party has fissures on many fundamental issues.

Danger signs for a Biden presidency are already emerging. Different factions within the Democratic coalition will have competing demands: Last week, Black lawmakers — led by Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi — called on Biden, if victorious, to appoint an African-American as secretary of the Treasury, “complicating,” as Axios put it, “prospects for establishment women — like Lael Brainard, Janet Yellen and Sarah Bloom Raskin — to become the first female Treasury secretary.”

Another source of potential division: corporate elites and the donor class versus the reform left: Raúl Grijalva, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Katie Porter, along with organizations like the Communications Workers of America, Our Revolution, Indivisible and the Progressive Change Campaign, called on the Senate on Oct. 16 to reject “any nominee to an executive branch position who is currently or has been a lobbyist for any corporate client or c-suite officer for a private corporation,” putting them in conflict with much of the affluent Democratic establishment.

Biden will take office under immediate pressure to address internal Democratic battles over a broad range of topics, including, to name just a few, mass incarceration, immigration reform, denial of asylum seekers’ rights, constraints on evictions, the politics of utility shut-offs, defunding law enforcement and the logistics of mandatory vaccination.

Julie Wronski, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, was explicit in warning about future schisms within the Democratic Party:

A Biden victory may not be a referendum on a progressive policy agenda. If anything, a Biden presidency may amplify the fractures within the Democratic Party as they try to push forward a post-Trump platform. A coalition may be in agreement on outing Trump and pulling the country out of its pandemic-induced economic tailspin. But when it comes to racial justice, income equality, or environmental regulation initiatives, differences within the party can manifest as opposing ideological forces that can bring legislative compromises to an impasse.

Difficulties in managing the Democratic Party are inevitable, given the scope of what Wronski described as the

“Never Trump” coalition that spans multiple ethnic/racial groups, socio-economic classes, issue preferences, and ideologies. On the left-right ideological spectrum, general election Biden supporters range from far-left Sanders primary voters to establishment Republicans such as the Lincoln Project.

Winning control of the Senate is critically important, of course, and will shape what happens as much as anything else an election can decide.

FiveThirtyEight estimates the odds of a Democratic takeover of the Senate at 74-26, or three to one.

Ray La Raja, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, voiced the consensus view of the strategists and scholars I contacted: “A Senate win is critical. Otherwise, we are back to a standoff between a Democratic President and Mitch McConnell.”

David Card, an economist at Berkeley, posed the question, “How crucial for the success of a Biden presidency is a Democratic Senate?” and answered the question himself:

100 percent. Obama came in after 2009 with a lot of troubles but Biden is taking over with nearly impossible deficit, pandemic and completely gutted federal government.

Without a Democratic senate majority, Biden stands no chance of winning approval of the very ambitious progressive agenda he has set for his administration.

It includes a major overhaul of tax and spending policies to shift benefits from the rich to the working class and the poor, a modified green new deal combined with $2 trillion for infrastructure, the investment of billions of dollars in business loans, subsidies and other benefits to Black and Latino communities.

These are just the tip of an iceberg that includes separate “Biden plans” or “Biden Agendas” for rural Americans, for the Latino community, for older Americans, for the Indian-American Community, the Jewish Community, the Muslim-American Community, for students, for the Catholic Community, for Asian-American and Pacific Islander Community and more.

Not only does Biden need a Senate majority, the size of the majority will also be crucial.

If he only has a cushion of one or two votes, Gary Burtless, an economist at Brookings, argues,

it would greatly reduce the chances Democrats could enact sweeping political and regulatory reforms, including major climate change legislation and rationalization of the Affordable Care Act.

But, Burtless continued,

Even a bare majority would allow Democrats to enact sensible fiscal policies, provide adequate relief to the unemployed, confirm centrist and liberal federal judges, and give the Democratic President greater leeway to reverse Trump-era regulations/deregulations.

Jim Kessler, executive vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic organization, put it this way:

A Democratic majority in the Senate is crucial, because controlling the floor and setting the legislative calendar is a must. A larger majority is better for Biden, but the difference between 49 and 50 is night and day. The difference between 50 and 53 are shades of gray.

The fact that Biden, a Democratic moderate, is campaigning on what may well be the most liberal platform since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal may help him fend off challenges from his left.

“The Biden agenda is very ambitious,” Kessler noted in his email:

The center and mainstream left are not far apart on climate and infrastructure and I expect a major package will get done. Covid relief and an economic recovery package will get done. Medicare for All is off the table, so there’s a good shot at some Obamacare expansions and of capping out-of-pocket health care costs. There will be tax reform.

La Raja, in turn, pointed out that

unlike Tea Party Republicans who wanted nothing to happen, people on the Democratic Left actually want some policies and will be willing to compromise even if these fall short of the ideal. There is room for leadership to negotiate and maneuver.

Despite this, La Raja warned,

the prospect of intraparty divisions is real, with a restive left-wing of the party and understandable calls for aggressive, even radical change.

What are the most likely sources of intraparty contention, I asked. La Raja replied:

Policies related to race will remain fraught, particularly if internal debates appear to focus on issues that do not poll well with the broader electorate, e.g., defunding the police.

Another source of internal party conflict, La Raja continued, would be an outcry from Democratic campaign contributors faced with the prospect of higher taxes to cover the costs of administration initiatives:

Then there is the Democratic donor class. The next few years will require significant sacrifices from the upper-fifth — and especially the upper one percent — to agree to policies that require massive investments, that address looming debt problems and create shared prosperity. These battles will be waged with the people who donate the vast majority of money to political campaigns and assess the viability of candidates. There will be major arguments over how to regulate Wall Street, Big Tech, and other industries, which are sources of great wealth for Democratic donors.

Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale, warned in an email that Biden will have to avoid stepping on any land mines:

The big issue here is staying away from raw nerves that could activate affluent localist resistance, which in turn could split the broad metro coalition that Democrats enjoy. Raising taxes on the superrich won’t do that.

Hacker cautioned, however, against placing new burdens on the top 20 percent, among whom Democratic support is growing.

On race specifically, Hacker continued, Biden should pursue

what Theda Skocpol once called “targeting within universalism” — broad policies that, by design and in effect, are most beneficial to disadvantaged minority Americans.

How about immigration?

Honestly, comprehensive immigration reform is likely quicksand. Biden should focus first on rolling back Trump policies, protecting Dreamers and setting up the next debate on the most favorable terms.

Can Biden, backed by a Democratic Senate, use the power of governing to strengthen and expand the Democratic coalition, to build an alliance of voters that improves the party’s prospects in the future?

Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton, thinks not:

Presidents presiding over unified government typically face huge backlash at their midterm elections. This has been true regardless of how well they hold together on their party’s priorities. Democrats lost their congressional majority in 1994 after they had failed spectacularly to deliver on health care reform with unified government under President Clinton. Democrats then lost their congressional majority again in 2010 after they succeeded in passing health care reform with unified government under President Obama. No matter whether they succeeded or failed on their major agenda priority, the midterm election result was the same.

The reality:

Neither party has been able to command enduring trust from American voters since 1980. In that sense, both parties are fundamentally minority parties. When given unified government, neither party has been able govern in such a way as to substantially expand its support and avoid the midterm backlash.

Henry J. Aaron, a senior fellow in economic studies at Brookings, was not optimistic about the prospects of a successful Biden presidency. “There are so many ways for things to go wrong,” he wrote in response to my inquiry:

The Republicans will rediscover the horrors of budget deficits; and there are too many Democrats who share this (currently) irrational fear. The hard left may demand more than the moderate Democrats can swallow on any number of issues. Biden appears entirely genuinely to want to pursue bipartisanship, which might require trimming so much from what the left wants that they desert him.

I asked Aaron whether Biden should try to bring some Republicans on board. He replied:

I have believed for many years that the demise of the Republican Party as a responsible governing party is the most serious political problem that the nation faces. The current Republican Party is a threat to the continuation of our democratic republic.

Despite that, Aaron continued,

Biden is right to seek rapprochement with Republicans where possible and to continually reach out to them in the most public way. I think that his efforts will likely fail. I worry much less that he will make the effort than that he will persist too long.

Aaron makes the point that given the probability of Republican intransigence, Biden

has to be prepared to play rough if his efforts are rebuffed. That includes trying to expand the Supreme Court (and end lifetime tenure, so that appointments come up at predictable intervals), ending the filibuster, aggressive use of reconciliation to enact his program, and use of executive orders where legally possible.

At the end of his email, Aaron summed up his views:

All in all, it seems to me that there are so many ways that a Biden administration can fizzle and so few ways it can fail to disappoint.

Burtless shared Aaron’s doubts about the likelihood that Biden could cultivate a productive relationship with any individual Republicans that could lead to bipartisan support for parts of his agenda.

Obama tried, Burtless noted, without any success, but

in trying to attract that support, the Obama administration put compromise provisions in the Senate bill [on Obamacare] that were foolish or contradicted some of the main goals of the bill. Unfortunately, some of those provisions remained in the law that was ultimately adopted, reducing the law’s effectiveness.

Burtless said he would advise a Biden administration “to leave the compromise language in a bill only if your opponents sign onto the final package.”

Finally, given the likelihood of continued Republican opposition to all things Democratic, should a Biden presidency — and a Democratic senate majority — get rid of the filibuster to gut the ability of Mitch McConnell to block enactment of legislation?

This is a more complex issue than it appears to be on the surface.

La Raja wrote that he would not be surprised to see Democrats kill the legislative filibuster, but pointed out that

removing it raises the stakes even more for future control of the Senate, reduces any remaining incentives for bipartisanship and introduces additional instability.

Congress, he pointed out,

has had unstable majorities since the 1990s. This situation encourages bare majorities to wield power aggressively to push through legislation while they can. It leads to overreach on policies lacking broad support, and opens the door to the rival party taking back Congress. Removing the filibuster will only heighten this dynamic.

In other words, if Democrats are given a free hand, they risk going too far to the left, threatening their prospects of remaining in the majority.

Frances Lee, the Princeton political scientist, pointed out that at one level, Democrats may not want to get rid of the filibuster because it now provides an excuse to avoid issues that tear the party apart:

If the Senate were to move to simple majority rule, majority parties would not be able to paper over their internal differences by holding together on symbolic votes, knowing that the opposing party will block them. Majority rule in the Senate would put the majority party more on the hook to deliver on its promises to base voters, and they could not blame the opposing party for blocking them. But this does not necessarily mean that they will be more successful in advancing legislation on controversial issues. Freed from the filibuster, parties will struggle more with their own internal divides.

Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings and a professor of political science at George Washington University, raised similar arguments, although she is generally in favor of ending the filibuster.

With two exceptions, if Democrats win just a small Senate majority, that won’t be sufficient to secure major Biden/Democratic policy gains. First, the new Republican minority will likely move to the right — presumably losing Collins, Gardner, Alexander, McSally. The more conservative the G.O.P., the harder it will be to construct deals to secure the necessary 60 votes to block filibusters. And any sense of Democrats’ vulnerability in 2022 will discourage the Senate G.O.P. from cooperating with Democrats.

If Democrats are determined “to do anything remotely big — electoral/voting reform, changing the court, e.g.— they’ll need to get rid of the filibuster,” Binder argued.

Without ending the filibuster, Democrats would “retain the ability to use budget reconciliation to secure some major policy changes (at least related to taxes and entitlement programs, such as Medicare/Medicaid),” according to Binder. In addition, Democrats could

use the Congressional Review Act, to move in a more piecemeal like fashion to undo late Trump-era regulations. Both of those tools empower slim Senate majorities. But they’re no match for the potential legislative gains secured by banning the filibuster.

Getting rid of the filibuster does not guarantee success, Binder stressed, given the ideological differences within the party:

The larger the Democratic majority, the more diverse. Just think about picking up Senate seats in Colorado, Montana, Maine, Kansas, Iowa (thinking big here for Democrats). That would add a centrist flank to the progressives that anchor the current Senate Democrat Caucus. And would potentially widen the policy gulf between a Democratic House and Senate. We know historically that such bicameral differences can limit legislative gains even during periods of unified control.

If Biden wins, all of the complexities that flow from a Democratic victory on Nov. 3 will require exceptional political and legislative skill to manage. He would also have to inspire and maintain popular support as the memory of an Election Day victory fades. These are burdens Biden has never had to carry. Politically speaking, holding on to the Democratic coalition may well prove to be the hardest part of his job, more so than fighting Republicans or the Trumpist remnants — or Trump himself.

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