Joe Biden should do some boring bipartisan commissions
Make politics tedious again
Joe Biden is on a hot streak. He signed into law a major climate change bill that addresses the top policy priority of high-socioeconomic status Democrats. He followed that up with a student loan forgiveness program that, again, delivers a big win for an important segment of his coalition.
Biden’s original base of working-class Democrats has not made out as well, but gasoline prices have been falling, which addresses their top cost of living concern, and the Inflation Reduction Act contains important provisions on health insurance costs and prescription drug prices. At the same time, Biden’s approval ratings have improved. And Democrats’ prospects in the midterms have started to look a lot better. FiveThirtyEight currently says Democrats will probably retain a slim Senate majority, and retaining the House is not entirely out of the question.
Under the circumstances, some progressives are feeling their oats and arguing that the confluence of policy and political success shows that it’s time to forget about namby-pamby bipartisanship and go for all-out progressive politics.
I disagree, and I worry there’s a major danger here. Democrats’ political gains seem to stem overwhelmingly from the conjunction of gas prices falling and backlash to the Dobbs ruling. The IRA was smart in the sense that it didn’t generate much backlash, but even politically smart partisan bills don’t usually help you politically. And the student loan thing clearly is prompting some backlash. That’s not to say that implementing your governing agenda is a bad idea, just that policy achievements spend down your political capital — they don’t build it up.
Politically speaking, the good thing about Biden’s August is that he’s now delivered for the noisiest and most engagement segments of his base and can afford to spend the fall pivoting back to the bipartisan Biden that progressives hate. And he should. Having locked down big wins on climate and student loan debt, the goal should be to highlight the dangerous policy changes Republicans are making on abortion and want to make on Social Security. Meanwhile, Biden should portray his own governing agenda as extremely boring. And I think a perfect way to do that would be to sponsor some bipartisan commissions — including a repeat of the Simpson-Bowles exercise on deficit reduction — to look at some issues that are a bit askance to the progressive advocacy agenda.
The Garden of American Heroes
Amidst the tumult of 2020, Donald Trump issued an executive order calling for the creation of a Garden of American Heroes with statues of famous and significant figures in American history. The idea was to position himself in opposition to the people who tear statues down, as someone who sees the good in the country and wants to celebrate it. But if you look at who he wanted to put in the garden, it’s actually not just some vile celebration of Confederate Generals. At my kid’s elementary school, the library includes a little history section that’s full of biographies. And you can tell the selections were made by administrators who are aware the school is about half-Black and a quarter-Hispanic and half girls. They want the kids to see a diverse roster of people represented on the shelf, not just a dozen white male presidents.
Similarly, Trump’s plan included Kobe Bryant and Muhammad Ali, alongside Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jeannette Rankin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells. Luis Alvarez and Lorenzo de Zavala are in there, too, with Sacagawea and Daniel Inouye.
In short, it’s a pretty inclusive list. The Trumpian stamp is that it also included now-derided figures like Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Columbus, along with people like Whittaker Chambers and Calvin Coolidge who appeal only to conservatives.
But that’s just to say it’s a pretty good list! It expands the boundaries of American heroes to include sports and cultural figures, it includes women and people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, and it acknowledges conservators of the American tradition as well as progressive improvers of the national project.
Because it’s Trump and he’s petty, it excludes Barack Obama, an obvious choice. And because Trump’s only move is to make things polarizing, nobody outside the little Trumpian circle was involved in creating the list, so it was viewed as a provocation in progressive circles. Michael Beschloss called it “totalitarian,” and Biden canceled it when he took office. Getting liberals to overreact to inoffensive ideas is a kind of political skill; an even better liberal response would be to actually create an inclusive garden of American heroes. Except instead of the goal being “get the people on the other side to be mad about this,” the goal should be to get everyone to not be mad.
Ask Richard Brookhiser and Nikole Hannah-Jones to co-chair it — I bet they’d come up with a list broadly similar to Trump’s. And I bet it would turn out that there’s actually widespread agreement that a lot of significant figures in American history had a mix of good and bad ideas but that if we choose to take a glass-half-full view, we can make this work.
What is the point of this?
To be clear, I am not a crazy person who is arguing that the American people are clamoring for the creation of a consensus-oriented Garden of American Heroes and that an initiative to do this will be met with massive and overwhelming public enthusiasm.
But I do think it would attract at least some attention (if there’s one thing everyone who’s ever worked in media knows, it’s that people are obsessed with lists), and it would illustrate to moderate and center-right people that right-wing caricatures of Joe Biden are not accurate. It would fill some news hole with items that were neither conservative attacks on Biden nor stories about Biden doing left-wing things that some people who dislike Trump might nonetheless feel inspired to counterbalance. And it would also clarify that when Biden dishes out campaign rhetoric about how “ultra-MAGA Republicans” are running a “semi-fascist” political movement, that he’s not saying every single person who has ever decided they like tax cuts and disapprove of gun regulations is a bad person. He is everybody’s president and he values everyone’s perspectives, but he’s also not going to let Blake Masters privatize Social Security.
The boring commission route is also an opportunity for politicians to do something important that I know ideologues on Twitter don’t approve of: acknowledge the existence of problems without necessarily demanding the sweeping transformation of American society.
But try to turn the internet-poisoned part of your brain off and just imagine having a casual conversation in real life with a group of people that includes some friends but also some casual acquaintances and strangers you just met. You wouldn’t pop off in a group like that with your hottest political takes. But if you were to say, “college keeps getting more expensive and that seems bad” or “this huge increase in people dying in car accidents is pretty disturbing,” I don’t think that would start any huge fights.
We in theory could solve the problem of rising college tuition with sweeping policy change. Personally, I would be fine with a large broad-based tax increase to significantly increase the level of subsidy offered at public colleges and universities. But I also have the following views:
Big tax increases tend to be unpopular.
Even popular tax increases that narrowly target the rich are hard to get through Congress.
If I had to make a ranked list of things I would do if I could pay for one program with a tax increase, college subsidies would be pretty low. I’d rather give cash grants to families or invest in preschool and child care or do something on health.
And in this case, I don’t think I’m being contrarian at all. It’s pretty clear that issues related to early family life are “next in line” in the progressive coalition. This means that realistically we’re not going to see the progressive solution to college costs implemented any time soon. So there’s no point in saying to people who are concerned about college costs that after the revolution we’re going to make it all free with a giant tax increase that moderates would hate, conservatives would hate, and even progressives who prioritize other issues would find to be a distraction.
So why not simply signal to people that you care by saying that you want to bring people together across party lines by proposing some not-super-contentious tweaks that might make things better? Mitch Daniels would be a great GOP co-chair for a college costs commission and Janet Napolitano could be his Democratic counterpart.
There are a lot of topics like this
I spent a lot of time being mad about the Simpson-Bowles Commission, and if you read any of the progressive internet during that era, you probably picked up the fact that Simpson-Bowles was bad. It was bizarre to be focusing on deficit reduction amidst ultra-low interest rates and super-high unemployment.
But the good news for commission fans is that unemployment is no longer super high. And while interest rates are still pretty low, they are definitely rising because inflation is high. Even now the deficit isn’t the kind of crisis that the Simpson-Bowles crowd pretended it was back in 2010-2012. But it’s a much more serious concern, and it’s at least plausible that the level of seriousness will increase a lot over the next six to 18 months as the Fed tightening cycle continues. So why not take another run at it? I don’t think the actual answers they’d come up with here (curb tax deductions, reduce Social Security benefits for people in the top third of the income distraction, etc.) would be dramatically different, but the circumstances are more appropriate.
There’s also smaller stuff that’s just kind of outside the bounds of partisan politics:
Participation in youth sports is in decline.
We urgently need to find non-China sources of lithium for batteries.
There are a lot of supply-side constraints on the health care system.
Nobody’s really sure what to do about the math learning loss that happened during the pandemic.
It’s good that people are able to retire, but inactivity seems non-optimal for a very large share of healthy senior citizens — we should come up with ways to connect America’s growing population of 60- and 70-somethings to meaningful volunteer and public service opportunities.
If Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell sat around for an hour shooting the shit, they could probably come up with even more. Not everything necessarily needs to have the full pomp and circumstance of a blue ribbon commission. And some things should probably be handled inside the congressional structure — maybe a select committee to review our relationship with Taiwan? — but the point is that there are plenty of opportunities to embrace bipartisanship and dull proceduralism to fill the news channels with worthy-but-boring stuff without betraying progressive values or surrendering on the message that banning abortion and privatizing Social Security are extreme.
Bipartisanship now or later
One thing I would urge skeptics to consider is that the political good news for Democrats still isn’t that good.
Biden’s approval rating is up, but we’re talking “mid-forties instead of high-thirties,” not Dark Brandon cruising his way to mega-popularity. The GOP Senate polling really does look remarkably bad right now, but 538 is still giving them a 35 percent chance at Senate control. And outside the boundaries of the modeling, we know that a lot of Democrats have been doing early ad spending that so far hasn’t really been answered by their opponents. When the spending evens out after Labor Day, I expect the Republicans to look better. There’s also the fact that I’m not convinced that pollsters have fixed the methodological problems that plagued polls in the 2016, 2020, and (to some extent) 2018 cycles.
It’s interesting to me that the Senate GOP super PAC is acting like their candidates’ polling is really bad right now. But one reason I was over-confident in the 2020 public polling is that House Republicans’ super PAC was making spending decisions that tracked the public poll result. This did show that the public pollsters weren’t “biased” toward Democrats in the sense of deliberately exaggerating their strength, but public and private pollsters were hampered by the same methodological flaws. Response rates have plummeted, and it’s become objectively harder to do good surveys. Thanks to education polarization, Republicans have a harder time hiring technically skilled specialists in all kinds of fields,1 and I think it's plausible that their private polling is just bad.
But even if the polling proves to be totally accurate, Republicans are still more likely to take the House than Democrats are to hold it.
That means starting in 2023, legislation will probably have to be bipartisan. It’s also possible that Lisa Murkowski will have veto power over executive branch confirmations and that it will be impossible for Biden to fill judicial vacancies. We know presidents usually lose ground in the midterms, which usually forces them to stop pressing a highly partisan agenda, which usually leads to a rebound in their popularity and electoral fortunes. The smart play is to execute that pivot now — when it’s too late to pass more major bills but still in time to influence the midterm elections — rather than being forced to do it after the midterms.
Republicans are clearly worse at typography and graphic design, for example, which doesn’t really matter, but I think reflects a general shortage of skilled labor across domains.