The Stealth Progressive
In prior posts, I talked about how Joe Biden’s presidential campaign resembled George Pataki’s successful challenge to Mario Cuomo in 1994 when Cuomo was seeking his fourth term of governor. Like his son today, Cuomo had become stale and burned more than a few bridges over the course of his three prior terms and the electorate was desperate for something new. In the same way, in just five years, many Americans had become weary of Trump and his constant presence and tweets, with the incompetence, corruption, lies, hate, and salesman’s bluster that came along with it.
In 1994, Pataki knew that the election was purely a referendum on Cuomo and accordingly ran what pundits described as a stealth campaign. As the New York Times noted, “He [Pataki] managed to run a stealth candidacy, standing for little other than the death penalty, lower taxes, welfare reform and not being Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. And he won…[T]he Pataki advisers had little regard for the conventions of campaigning in New York. Maybe that is why he won”. Biden, on the other hand, was largely forced out of the public eye because of Covid and he was a lot more explicit about his policy positions. But, because he had to lay low, the election became even more clearly a referendum on Trump.
Biden has been President for around 50 days and what he has already accomplished is remarkable. He has issued the most executive orders of any of the last three Presidents, mostly focused on the pandemic and immigration. Many have been simple reversals of Trump’s prior orders. Biden has obtained hundreds of millions of additional doses of the vaccine. Over 60% of Americans over age 65 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, as has nearly 20% of the total population. Around 100 million doses will be administered this week alone.
Finally, of course, there is the passage of the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill. Not only will it provide eligible citizens with a one-time $1400 check but it also provides $300 per week in additional unemployment benefits. Slightly over $10,000 in unemployment benefits will be tax free. The bill provides billions for vaccine distribution and state and local aid, as well as rental aid. It increases ACA subsidies especially for those nearer the income threshold and provides temporary 100% coverage of COBRA for those who have lost their employee sponsored health insurance. Families will receive anywhere from $3000 to $3600 per child, which is expected to reduce poverty in this country by over one third, lifting 42% of Blacks, 39% of Hispanics, and 34% of whites currently living below the poverty line.
By all accounts, this is the most progressive piece of legislation since LBJ’s Great Society programs of the mid-1960s. And to highlight just how remarkable it is that such a broad package like this actually got passed with only Democratic votes, a Goldman Sachs report that came out just after it became clear that Democrats would win both Senate races in Georgia and control the Senate estimated the stimulus bill would only be around $750 billion. That number is actually closer to the GOP’s rejected proposal and just over one-third of what actually passes. With Biden’s public support for both the unionization drive in Alabama and the PRO Act, as well as his removal of Trump appointees from the NLRB, he also became the most outspoken presidential supporter of unions, possibly since FDR.
Biden and Democrats in general will now be mounting a full court press around the country in touting the benefits of this bill, even in red states. In fact, most of the benefits in the bill actually flow to red states and, despite the opposition from the entire Republican congressional delegation, a majority of working class Republicans support the bill.
Over at the Washington Monthly, Bill Scher wants to know what comes next. Having passed what he calls items 1, 2, and 3 on Biden’s agenda with the Covid relief bill, Scher writes, “The problem is: nobody can name No. 4, 5, and 6. Setting legislative priorities is a crucial initial step…Yet Politico reports that ‘Schumer and Biden have not decided on the Senate’s next big priority’. And time is already ticking. Usually, by the end of February of in the first year of a presidential term, the president will have given an address to a joint session of Congress and a prime-time national audience to set legislative priorities”.
But perhaps the success of the Covid relief bill shows that the exact opposite approach may be preferable. Biden largely stayed out of the mess that Manchin was making in the Senate and only stepped in when he was absolutely needed. The House will pass everything it can, as it should. It will be up to Schumer to figure out what he can do in the Senate. Like the Covid relief bill, there are plenty of options that will have majority popular support, whether that be an attempted bipartisan bill on industrial policy focused on China, or an infrastructure package, or taking advantage of Republican obstruction on Covid to bust the filibuster for electoral reform.
Perhaps letting the process work through Congress without Biden’s public input will produce the best solution. That process is largely ignored by most Americans. And Biden providing a laundry list of items he wants to get through Congress in a State of the Union just highlights those issues and provides the Republicans with targets for prebuttal and mischaracterization. It’s not like Democrats don’t know the priorities. The stealth method produced the most progressive bill in decades and, rather than focusing everyone on what he will do, it allows Biden to tell Americans what he and the Democrats have actually done.