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Hi there, here’s what you need to know for the week of July 22, 2022, in 10 minutes.

THIS WEEK INSIDE THE BIG TENT:


① The fall of Roe and other devastating setbacks are a product of Democrats' blind faith in turning the other cheek to GOP abuses and redoubling their focus on policy 

② I get the appeal—policy is interesting; it's how good politicians help regular people—but at some point they have to adjust to the reality of an opposition that kneecaps sources of liberal power, sabotages common good, and seeks to subjugate popular majorities

③ Wonkery, maybe even another FDR-like policy revolution, might one day become the beating heart of politics again; but today is not that day, and the sooner the Dems accept that, the less damage they'll have to undo

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BABY GOT SETBACK

It’s a few hours as I write this before the House January 6 Committee proves for the eighth time that Donald Trump did the coup, so I want to zoom out a bit and examine the mounting setbacks the country has faced in recent weeks, from Supreme Court decisions to the seemingly final demise of President Biden’s legislative agenda, to think a little more deeply about why it all happened and how to regroup.

① POWER SNATCH KIDS

The Washington Post writer Perry Bacon recently published a column titled “The fall of Roe is the culmination of the Democratic establishment’s failures.” Roe had been at risk for decades, just a bit longer than the current crop of leaders has controlled the Democratic Party, and through that time they were unwilling or unable to neutralize the threat. Ergo, failure. And you can extend the critique to many failures, each one an orphan with a thousand fathers. 

But I’d like to supplement this critique with a wide-angle look at why it all played out like this. What is it about how modern Democrats conceive of politics that left them vulnerable to the fall of Roe, the diminishment and then failure of their climate-change and immigration-reform agendas, the loss of the judiciary, and on and on?

A thorough answer could fill its own book, but I think we can boil it down in a useful way. At bottom, I think the explanation is that the right has imagined itself as an insurgent force in American politics and the center-left has accepted its incumbency, or the inevitability of progress on a long-enough time scale. How else could Democratic leaders be so blasé about the many crises bubbling up around them?

This difference filters into how the parties wield power. 

Since the New Deal, through eras of ascendency and retreat, Democrats have sought political power almost exclusively as a means of modifying and expanding the terms of a social contract for Americans. They are driven by the pursuit of ideological goals and interest group demands, nearly all of which entail passing significant pieces of legislation. Their presidents view their own legacies as synonymous with how much they can get done on that front, and how well it stacks up to what FDR managed to achieve. If not FDR, then LBJ; if not LBJ, then Barack Obama. Be like them, and not only will history remember you fondly, but your party will thrive as the public rallies to the side of solidary leaders.

They have also, rightly and wrongly, projected mirror-image ambitions on to their opponents, imagining the great pendulum swings of politics as a tit-for-tat between common-good liberals and libertarian-minded conservatives; a world where the Republican ideal of political greatness runs through the Reaganesque devolution of the welfare state and other institutions of collective power. 

It’s a pleasingly symmetrical model, and there have been times when it resembled reality, but I think it’s mostly wrong, and completely outmoded today. FDR was a rare leader, but it’s reductionist in the extreme to attribute the durability of Democratic power after he died entirely to the way he governed, rather than, say, to the fact that the Democratic coalition included segregationists who rigged elections for themselves. Reagan really did preside over a hollowing-out of the New Deal, but the New-Deal coalition was already in tatters by the 1980s, and it’s incorrect to think of Reagan’s “success” in purely fiscal terms. Even then, Republicans viewed fleeting control over the federal government as an opportunity to undermine Democratic power centers, to structurally weaken their opponents. 

If anything’s changed it’s the level of GOP zest for frontal attacks on the welfare state. Through the 2010s, Republicans used power principally to sever the connection between popular Democratic majorities and their ability to claim and wield power for themselves. They still cut taxes for the rich and sabotaged social programs when the opportunity arose. But the first thing they did after the 2010 midterms was gerrymander Democrats into semi-permanent minority status anywhere they could. Then they came for labor rights and public-sector unions and campaign-finance regulations and voting rights and the Census. When they’ve lost, they’ve used their expiring trifectas to strip incoming Democrats of the authorities they had wielded gleefully. They use power not just to remake the social contract, but as a means of power accretion in itself. In the Trump and post-Trump era, the core Republican aspiration is to torment and persecute liberals and their purported allies; to wield power from the minority through nullification and judicial fiat; to own the libs.

The Democratic Party’s ambitions haven’t changed to counter this rogue turn. 

② THE RIG IS UP

The only surefire way to counter it would be for Democrats to adjust their own priorities away from policy essentialism in order to unrig the democracy. 

The best time to begin that project was probably in 2009. I remember thinking about the wall Democrats would hit during the 2007/2008 primary, and even asking candidates what they planned to do about Mitch McConnell and the filibuster, and they basically reacted as if I were an extraterrestrial. If Mitch McConnell filibusters everything, we’ll just have to find a way to get 60 votes for stuff! Easy! 

They ended up lucking into 60 votes, but they didn’t use their huge majority to disarm the Republicans ahead of their predictable assault on majority rule. They kept the legislative filibuster intact, not just because they couldn’t fathom abolishing it, but at the behest of advocates in reproductive rights and other movements, who feared what Republicans would do without a supermajority requirement in the Senate. They jettisoned their plans to revive the labor movement and create a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, never really contemplated resetting the scales that Bush v. Gore tipped, and we’ve been living with the consequences ever since. Not just the consequences, but the same leaders and their same theories of politics. In 2025 we may be living with the consequences of Biden-era Dems, with their much smaller majorities, also expending all their political capital on wonkery, and giving short-shrift to the Republican unraveling of democracy.

When Democrats next enjoy a trifecta—or, if we’re lucky, when this one gets re-elected—they will once again have to strike some balance between social progress and redressing what Republicans imposed abusively on an unconsenting majority. They’d be well advised to tune out the interest groups vying for tier-one status, and their own generational fights, and devote as much time and effort as needed to wiping out the GOP’s illegitimate sources of power. 

③ DELIVERISM FAILURE

I don’t think I’m falling prey here to any kind of motivated reasoning. It’s not that I think policy is boring, or that I want Democrats to curb their policy ambitions out of a misguided sense that policy moderation is the key to electoral success. I’m a pretty left-leaning guy and would like the policy status quo in the U.S. to be significantly to the left of where it is. 

But I understand that things have changed over time and the most urgent thing now doesn’t coincidentally happen to be the same thing I’ve always thought was most important. 

In 2009 and 2010 I led the Congress beat for TPM, and because that was a recent high-water point for legislating, it was essentially a policy-reporting job. Honestly, it was really interesting, rewarding work, even though I knew at some level it was a passing moment, and things would quickly change. To do the job well, you had to understand program design on a theoretical level, and then you had to understand how to devolve it from an abstract form into one that could survive the gauntlet of legislative politics. Breaking news was relatively easy, because when there are 60 Democrats and a filibuster and no appetite to get rid of the filibuster and Republicans have embraced pre-emptive, lockstep obstruction, then every Democrat becomes a kingmaker, their every word a possible scoop.

The 2012 election was, likewise, an unusually substantive contest between progressive and regressive worldviews. You couldn’t cover that election well if you didn’t take some interest in policy minutae, and the feasibility of various “plans'' defined the election in ways I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since. Then as now, liberals were consumed with constant dread over worst-case scenarios, such that Obama world dubbed them “bedwetters.” They dreaded the thought of Mitt Romney beating Barack Obama for a bunch of reasons, but chief among them was the expectation that Romney would repeal Obama’s health-care law before it ever took effect, and set back the dream of a liberal revival for another generation.

I’d give a lot to go back to How Things Were back then, but I also realize it’d be crazy to go about my job today as if nothing had changed, as if the beating heart of politics were still program design. 

Generally speaking, though, that’s what the “Democratic establishment” has done. And not just the leaders, as Bacon defined it, but the whole network of party actors and aligned advocacy groups.

The broad left has effectively redoubled its conviction that the best way to deal with the right’s politics of rule or ruin is to pull the policy lever ever harder. Different Democrats have different intuitions about how the policy lever is supposed to work. Progressives imagine transformational, redistributive policies will generate working-class solidarity and an unbeatable rainbow coalition. Moderates believe competent management, along with popular but incremental new reforms will capture the political center, without which Republicans can’t win.

But both believe that good policy, and good execution, are destiny, and that consensus is visible in the party's vast technocratic class, the army of Mr. Fix-its who ride to the rescue after Republicans leave everything in a smoldering heap.

And yet, Republicans still win half of all elections. The progressive writer David Dayen coined the term “deliverism” to reconcile Democratic policy essentialism with the party’s middling electoral performance. It isn’t enough, under his theory, for the planks of the Democratic agenda to be popular, they also have to become law, and be well implemented. It isn’t enough, and may even be counterproductive, to run campaign after campaign on promises to reduce insurance premiums and prescription-drug prices, if you never actually pass the bills that bring those dollar figures down mechanically, without muss or fuss. 

There’s real appeal to deliverism, especially if you’re a high-minded liberal or lefty, and (not for nothing) it describes a beau ideal of ethical conduct in public life. It’d be nice to imagine things working that way, it makes policy ambition the gravitational center of Democratic politics, and, in recent years at least, it’s been unfalsifiable: For all they’ve done in the new century, Democrats haven’t delivered many lasting, tangible benefits to the broad public. The ACA is something like the exception that proves the rule, because its universal benefit—the coverage guarantee—is abstract; the main material benefits—the coverage expansion—by design didn’t touch the existing arrangements of the vast majority of insured people. Biden delivered the temporary provisions of the American Rescue Plan, and they were popular, but they weren’t lasting, so can’t by definition be a basis for electoral domination.

I think the sad truth is, the evidence for deliverism is scant, and the only thing that will save Democrats and the country is a resolve to prioritize things we don’t really think of as policy objectives per se. What will work is adding states to the union, disempowering the Senate, abolishing the filibuster, expanding the courts, summarily reversing its most corrupt precedents, proportional representation, prison for Donald Trump.

In all this procedural reform, there would still be policymaking. Policy can never be irrelevant to politics. To the contrary, it is and should be its ultimate end, the thing that inspires people to work on campaigns or run for public office in the first place. But it’s time for Democrats to de-emphasize it as a singular means of appealing to voters and building legacies. A Democratic trifecta will obviously have policy objectives, and should fear governing failure. But the party would be better off in the current moment de-emphasizing policy on the hustings, and delivering policy as an accumulation of singles and doubles, rather than as wild swings for the fences. They'd be better off if they stopped trying to save American democracy by proving its rickety old institutions can still deliver sweeping substantive change, and simply made the institutions better.

If every time Democrats won a trifecta, the federal minimum wage increased a few bucks, and the Medicare-eligibility age dropped a couple years—as predictably as Republican trifectas cut rich people’s taxes—it’d be better for the Democratic brand than interrupting long periods of inertia and waywardness with the occasional moonshot. If Democrats and their activist class stopped totemizing dusty old policy objectives, and rooted their governing decisions in their studied sense of national need, we could let progress beget progress in a slow climb to the mountaintop, rather than wait impatiently for a radical reform to fix everything in one fell swoop. Maybe one day along the way a huge Democratic majority will return and the party will enact a blizzard of new programs; but we're not going to get there without a democracy, and we won't have a democracy if Democrats won't build one.

I’d love America to have a Medicare-for-all system, but I’d take Medicaid-for-all as a floor, and I’d even take a government that sees uninsurance as a problem to keep chipping away on the QT while devoting their frontal efforts to savaging their fascist opponents. For the first half of my career, the Democratic coalition puzzled over the pros and cons of taxing emissions versus creating a market for trading them under a cap. Several years later, neither framework is in place, but we seemingly have learned that how we reduce emissions is far less important than that we reduce emissions. If Democrats manage to renew their lease on this majority, and add just a couple senators, they should pass the climate spending Joe Manchin just killed, but it should be a side show to an accountability-driven restoration of everything Democrats allowed Republicans to steal from them. 

In 2015 Putin’s number one public enemy, Boris Nemtsov, was shot and killed in front of the Kremlin. He was a relentless critic of Putin, corruption, and war in Ukraine. Then, he was assassinated.

In the newest Crooked podcast Another Russia, his daughter, journalist Zhanna Nemtsova, and co-host Ben Rhodes, tell his story to find out what happened to an entire country and to explore the question: Is another Russia possible?

New episodes of Another Russia drop each Monday starting July 25th.
Check out the trailer & subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

On a related note, read Virginia Heffernan on John Fetterman.

I wrote an op-ed a guest essay for the New York Times on Democrats thumbing the scales in GOP primaries for MAGA candidates, the impossible goal of complete neutrality, and a better way to brand the GOP with its own sins and liabilities. I hope you’ll give it a read.

The January 6 committee will hold more hearings in September, because, as Liz Cheney described it Thursday night, "doors have opened, new subpoenas have been issued and the dam has begun to break.″ That's good, because the Secret Service is sure acting like there's a lot of incriminating shit the committee didn't uncover on first pass, and Donald Trump is still trying to coup it up

Instant pre-order.

Speaking of Perry Bacon, he wrote another good one.

Democrats have put Republicans on the hind foot by forcing votes on protecting same-sex marriage and the right to contraception, and the only explanation is that Nancy Pelosi must have subscribed to Big Tent

Again, the Republican plan to deal with inflation remains to gut Social Security and Medicare, which is also their plan for every other possible economic circumstance.

New pod! I spoke to author Dave Cullen about whether we should devote more effort to changing gun culture than gun laws per se. Can we make gun culture anathema instead of something we celebrate or just roll our eyes at? Listen here (after you read the op-ed).

Even (some writers at) Lawfareblog wonder wtf Merrick Garland is up to.

Yeah, you can just watch this happen in real time, if you’re paying attention.

Amen, Luke Skywalker

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