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.