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Hi there, here’s what you need to know for the week of October 29, 2021, in 9 minutes.

THIS WEEK INSIDE THE BIG TENT:


① In Virginia, Democrats belatedly joined the Republican culture-war fight over schools; but the rest of the party remains paralyzed in the face of right-wing aggression on many fronts

② At the same time, Democrats in Washington have been wrestling with whether Build Back Better should do a few things on a permanent basis, or a bunch of things, some or all of which will have to be renewed in the future

③ If Democrats don't want to fight in the culture wars, and don't want GOP culture-war nonsense to dominate elections, they need to engineer ways to make elections about policy—placing popular benefits on the cliff's edge might be just the thing

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FRAMEWORK IN PROGRESS

President Biden visited Capitol Hill on Thursday in a somewhat desperate attempt to generate progress on his economic agenda before he travels to Europe for a big climate-change summit. He announced a new (final?) “framework” for the Build Back Better Act, and asked House Democrats to take a leap of faith in his ability to get 50 votes for it in the Senate. Which is to say, he asked them to delink the Senate infrastructure bill from the Build Back Better Act, pass the former now, and trust that the latter will become law as he presented it today. 

As I wrote this Thursday afternoon, he had his work cut out for him. Even after taking tons of flesh from Build Back Better neither Joe Manchin nor Kirsten Sinema had committed to voting for a bill based on the new framework. But the very existence of a framework gives us an opportunity to consider on an ongoing debate among liberals over the strategic approach Democrats should take to crafting Build Back Better given that Manchin and Sinema arbitrarily halved its 10-year spending.

Within those constraints, the broad consensus among liberal policy writers is that Democrats should pare back the menu of reforms in Biden’s plan and use the savings to fund the remaining ones on a permanent basis. On the other side of this debate, House progressives (and, importantly, Biden himself) have argued that they should pass as many programs as possible, but set some or all to expire within the 10-year budget window, on the theory that they’ll become popular and entrenched enough that future Congresses (even Republican ones) won’t allow them to sunset.

I confess to being a bit torn about what the right thing to do is, but I think when push comes to shove I side with Biden and the progressives. Democrats are right to pack the bill with at least some temporary programs, if only to assure that they can contest future elections on the firmest possible ground: Don't let Republicans take away your benefits. More broadly, thinking through how Democrats can shape what elections are about in a poisoned environment of GOP disinformation and culture-war propaganda is one of the party’s most urgent tasks, and I’m glad to see Biden and progressives taking it on.

① TERRY FIRMA

There’s a gubernatorial election in Virginia on Tuesday between Democrat (and former governor) Terry McAuliffe and Republican (and current Trump supporter) Glenn Youngkin and it’s unnervingly close. Part of that is because centrist Democrats like Manchin and Sinema took a six-month joyride with Biden’s approval rating and ran it into a ditch; part of it is because the president’s party almost always fares poorly in Virginia’s off-off-year gubernatorial election; another part is that Youngkin is a better opponent than Virginia Democrats have had to run against in recent cycles. In his first race in 2013, McAuliffe broke the streak and barely won the governorship despite the fact that his party controlled the presidency, and he actually did it when Virginia was purpler than it is today. But he was also running against the relatively buffoonish Ken Cuccinelli. Adjust expectations upward for the bluening of Virginia, back down again for the fact that he’s running against a more formidable opponent this time, and the fact that polls are super tight makes a lot of sense.

But the race has entered the final stretch on an interesting note. Youngkin has tried to elide his association with Trump by campaigning almost exclusively on culture-war claptrap: specifically on the idea that schools have been overtaken by “woke” curriculum, and that McAuliffe wants to stop parents from fixing it. It’s all horseshit, but in a consultant-approved effort to avoid raising the salience of racial issues, Democrats essentially abandoned this terrain, even as school-board officials came under increasingly menacing right-wing threats. 

This week, though, Youngkin ran an ad featuring a Virginia mom claiming to be horrified by the reading her son was assigned when he was a high-school student, and angry at McAuliffe for vetoing a bill that would’ve allowed her and other reactionary parents to veto their children’s curricula. Youngkin didn’t think it through though, because it turns out this mom is a Republican operative; her son is now also a Republican operative himself, and the book that supposedly traumatized him was Beloved by Toni Morrison. The ad gave Democrats an opening to portray Youngkin—accurately—as someone who would ban books, including literary classics, to pander to racists and religious bigots if given power. And they took it. 

The whole episode is a good example of what I mean when I say Democrats shouldn’t dodge culture wars, but win them. The best way to counter the GOP’s critical race theory propaganda blitz isn’t to pivot evasively to other issues, or whine about how Republicans are being unfair, but to run against GOP efforts to ban teaching MLK, or their creepy desire to surveil children in their classrooms to make sure they aren’t being taught any wrongthink. 

The problem is that most liberals don’t process political conflict this way. McAuliffe’s deft jiu jitsu stands in stark contrast to how Democrats have responded to right-wing aggression on the schools front nationwide. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Republican after Republican screamed calumny at Attorney General Merrick Garland, accusing him of siccing G-men on innocent parents who are simply pleading with school boards not to indoctrinate their children. 

Garland, with backup from Democrats on the committee, scolded these Republicans for mischaracterizing the administration's policy—which is simply to solicit strategies to reduce the climate of threat against teachers and school officials, who are increasingly the target of violence thanks to GOP disinformation. 

It’s not that Democrats are wrong that Republicans are lying or that their frustration with Republican lies isn’t justified. But of course the best response to “why do you treat parents like terrorists?!?!” isn’t to meekly deny the accusation. It’s to say, “why do you think violent people should get away with terrorizing teachers, school-board members, and election officials?!!”

The background din of everyday life in America today is feral Trumpers screaming at, threatening, or assaulting people who enforce the democratically legitimate rules of our society: servers and flight-attendants enforcing masking or vaccination requirements; school-boards setting curricula for their districts; government officials counting votes and certifying elections. This isn’t heart-winning behavior in service of popular ideas; it’s mob rule in the face of popular will. And it should be a huge liability for Republicans; Democrats can make a national issue of the climate of violence and unrest Trump has unleashed; or they can mistake affected Republican anger for political firm-footing and cower. 

② OBJECT: PERMANENCE

So ideally Democrats would play to win both the culture wars and the policy wars. But if they’re unwilling to join the culture wars, they should at least do whatever they can to make sure the policy stakes of our elections can break through the culture-war noise. 

And this is why I ultimately think Biden’s right about the Democrats’ Build Back Better strategy.

Over the course of the past several weeks, it seemed like Democrats might paper over the debate between the “do a few things permanently” and “do a bunch of things on a temporary basis” factions by gutting the programs to make them cheap enough to pass permanently. Means test the hell out of everything; impose work requirements; turn popular programs into inadministrable nightmares people hate. 

That would’ve been the worst of both worlds. And to be clear, I think the framework Biden presented on Thursday has some vestigial flaws that seem to stem from the hash he and Democrats made of this legislative process. Maybe handing Manchin and Sinema the keys was the only way to get their buy-in for any further spending after the American Rescue Plan. But Biden should have had some red lines of his own. Giving Manchin and Sinema latitude to bargain down the spending topline in the Build Back Better Act may have been necessary to win their votes; but not at the cost of making programs unduly complicated, stingy, or politically fraught.

As Democrats design policy, their lodestars should be to create programs that are easy to execute, and to insulate them from GOP sabotage. Republicans at the state level will opt out of any programs that allow states to opt in; Republicans in Washington will not help Democrats pass minor fixes or technical corrections to Build Back Better programs, and will run against its flaws.

Stipulating to those conditions, though, the permanent vs. temporary debate comes down to political judgments about risk tolerance and the mechanisms of democracy. Given the likelihood that Republicans will control Congress if not the whole government in the near future, passing a few permanent programs will lastingly improve people’s lives, leaving a legacy Republicans can’t undo. By contrast, those same Republicans can passively allow temporary programs to expire through simple inaction. 

The case for doing less with more is humane and pretty strong, but ultimately a recipe for elections about nothing that Republicans win with nonsense.

③ SUNSET A HIGH BAR

In their passivity about culture wars, and their policy risk aversion, liberals evince a pretty commonly held faith that good governance creates its own political rewards. That enacting popular bills, improving people’s lives, being responsible stewards of the economy, are things voters will absorb by osmosis, and that will stick out above the avalanche of garbage pouring forth from right-wing and national media. That riding the currents of public opinion will deliver them to safe harbor through turbulent political seas. 

There’s basically no evidence to support this mechanistic view of American elections. A better way to think of it is that, for Democrats, good economic stewardship and technocratic competence are table stakes, but they need to do more than that to make it clear to voters whose side they're on, whether that’s in the realm of culture war or policy.

All the yammering in the world about pre-existing conditions protections (the most popular part of Obamacare) couldn’t save Democrats from defeat in 2010, 2014, 2016, or even downballot in 2020, but worked well in 2018 against the backdrop of GOP efforts to take those benefits away. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both came up short in the November popular vote, but their races were close enough to trigger Georgia’s runoff law, and they turned things around by saying their victories—and only their victories—would result in nearly every American receiving $1,400 from the government. 

It takes a very unusual political climate for policy stakes to break through the cacophony of right-wing politics, but Democrats can at least conceivably engineer that kind of climate by including at least a few simple, popular programs in Build Back Batter, and setting them to sunset around election time. 

Might Democrats end up losing those elections anyhow, only to see their hard fought victories disappear? Yes, they absolutely might. But they also might not! Or, in an effort to neutralize backlash, Republicans might agree to make those programs permanent before voting begins, taking them off the table for campaign purposes. And if the worst comes to pass, at least those elections will have turned on their true stakes, rather than agitprop about Ebola-infected terrorists crossing the border in caravans of Great Replacers. Vote blue or Republicans will take the $600 a month you’ve been counting on for your kids out of your bank account.

A bunch of smart people think that's all too reckless. Their arguments are familiar to those of us who’ve supported filibuster reform for a long time, and grappled with a similar form of liberal risk aversion. Liberal filibuster supporters constantly raise the specter of Republicans repealing good laws or passing bad ones with simple majorities; they argue that giving Mitch McConnell veto power over Biden’s agenda now is a price worth paying to thwart future, hypothetical Republican governments. 

But that's just an argument for more and more vaporwear campaigns and culture-war nihilism. The antidemocratic structure and rules of Congress shield elected officials from accountability and obscure the stakes of elections from voters; allowing simple majorities to govern would make it harder for members of either party to hide behind process and force them to own real agendas. But if abolishing the filibuster is not an option, then setting up legislative cliffs that turn elections into potential death knells for policies that improve people’s lives can serve as a backdoor way to make voters understand the importance of elections, and which party stands for what. 

An influential school of thought today holds that Democrats’ best hope for a future that’s stacked against them is to turn typically low-salience policy disputes into high-salience ones. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but it’s extremely hard to do when the policies that poll well bear no resemblance to the stakes on the ground. The only way to correct that mismatch within the four corners of Build Back Better is to make all-in bets on at least some of its measures and hope voters will respond to the risk of losing them the way they responded to the promise of $1,400 checks. If you believe, as I do, that defeating Republicans in an unbroken series of elections is a make-or-break imperative for the nation, then you have to set them back on their heels; you have to understand politics as a melee and arrange them around putting Republicans on the defensive as much as possible. That’s true for the culture wars; it’s true for Build Back Better as well.

Read Sarah Lazarus on the Glenn Youngkin book-banning fiasco.

Read Amanda Terkel on one particularly vile facet of the GOP propaganda blitz in Virginia. 

The Washington Post anti-endorsement of Glenn Youngkin is really good.  

Thanks to American hero Lauren Windsor, we now know Donald Trump really did plan to march to the Capitol on January 6, at least according to his top pro-coup lawyer, John Eastman, which means the select committee should be able to access Secret Service contingency planning for transporting or accompanying him down there.

Related, read Will Bunch on the criminal conspiracy between Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, Eastman and others, led by Donald Trump, that’s staring everyone in the face. 

Here is the best-aggregated presentation of the contents of The Facebook Papers, by far. 

If you have the time and want a visceral sense of why it’s so critical to put infrastructure in the rearview and move on to democracy protection, watch this Senate rules committee hearing.

MAGA Youth movement officially death-squad curious.  

A random selection of tweets about Dune that made me laugh.

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