Election day is less than 48 hours away. I’m going to write under the assumption that Biden wins. Because the alternative is too stressful and awful to contemplate, like a year of cloudy days, or an Air Supply reunion tour. Specifically, I want to explore what we on the left should expect of a President Biden and how much leeway we should give him.
I am on the leftward side of the Democratic Party. But I am not a purist. Historically, I have found incremental progress to be preferable to self-righteousness in the face of total defeat. So, for example, if I were a dictator (working on it…) I would institute single payer health care. Nonetheless, I supported Obamacare and would be open to a public option under President Biden. King Me would also institute free college (and there would be a lot of beheadings involved). But if we can’t get the votes for that, I could live with zero-interest student loans paid back as a percentage of one’s income so that they are affordable.
I take this position because I’ve been a legislator for 18 years and I’ve learned that if you are only willing to accept 100% of what you want, you are more likely to get 0%. But if you can get 60%, you can build on that later while improving the lives of at least some people somewhat now.
Throughout my many legislative battles, I’ve found advocates to be hugely helpful in forcing progress, but they can also be a huge impediment. For example, I miraculously passed Pennsylvania’s Medical Cannabis bill through a very conservative Republican legislature. Many commentators have written that it is among the best programs in the nation, but it is not perfect. I had to give up some things (like the right to grow your own) in order to get the bill passed. To be clear, if I had not made those compromises, there would have been NO BILL. Yet there are still a couple of people in the Cannabis Community who write about how I am the devil for “selling out”.
I also remember the 2010 midterm election. Back then I spoke with many progressives who swore that they would not vote Democratic that year. They would either vote third party or not vote at all in order to punish Obama for not passing single-payer health care, or even a public option. I tried to point out that Obama still achieved something amazing, passing the first major health care bill since Medicare in 1966, that would increase the number of people with coverage by tens of millions. “He just didn’t have the votes” I argued. (Thank you Joe Leiberman!). “But if we allow the Republicans to take control of Congress, that will be the end of progress, not just on health care, but on everything”. These arguments fell on deaf ears, and the rest is history.
So, assuming that Joe Biden is sworn in on January 20th and not put in a camp along with Rosie O’Donnell and the Clinton family, what balance should we strike between holding his feet to the fire and giving him the space he needs to make as much progress as is politically possible on issues where complete victory is not feasible? How do we support him and pressure him at the same time?
I think that, in part, depends on the political realities of the issue at hand. There will be some issues where complete victory is possible, and we have a moral obligation to go for it and get it. If Democrats take control of the Senate, we can end the filibuster, give the citizens of Washington DC and Puerto Rico the full right to participate in our democracy which comes with statehood, and reform the federal judiciary to undo the outright stealing of seats that the Republicans have engaged in. As an institutionalist, Biden will resist taking bold steps which might seem to violate norms of bi-partisanship that existed in a Washington of long ago. There must be hard pressure brought on the administration to pull the trigger on these critical steps forward.
There will be other issues where Biden can act alone, and he must do so. The most pressing of these include immediately reversing President Trump’s executive orders on the environment, labor rights, education and immigration. I can’t think of very many Trump executive orders which should survive the time it takes to print out their repeal. And I’m told they have very good printers at the White House.
Other issues will be trickier. If we hold, say, a 52–48 majority in the Senate, we can assume that we will get zero Republican votes for anything. Further, we may face resistance from some Democrats as well. Senator Manchin might object to some of our more progressive initiatives, as might Senators such as Feinstein, Sinema, or Tester. Like Obama, Biden may not have the votes for everything the left would like to see enacted into law. Biden himself might balk at some progressive policy proposals.
The response to policy disagreements shouldn’t be condemnation and political abandonment. It should be measured pressure tempered with understanding and assumptions of good-faith leading to negotiations. If we can’t get single-payer, maybe we can get a public option. Maybe we can reduce the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 60 and increase the number of conditions that allow for earlier enrollment. If we can’t fully legalize cannabis immediately, maybe we can pass the SAFE Banking Act or repeal section 280(e) of the tax code which prohibits cannabis businesses from taking normal tax deductions for the cost of doing business.
Again, partial victories still improve people’s lives. They also de-stigmatize policies that have been demonized by the right, enhancing political support for constructive government intervention, and they create the policy infrastructure which lays the foundation for future progress. When it comes to the inevitable disagreements with a Biden administration, the progressive approach should be 1. Persuasion, 2. Negotiation, 3. Principled Compromise, 4. Continued Engagement.
If we do these things, we will gain some huge victories on critical issues in a Biden/Harris administration, and we will make meaningful progress on others, and help President Biden retain the political support necessary to ensure that the progress can continue for a full eight years.
Now go freaking vote!