Like many of you (perhaps), I’m wondering why Joe Biden’s approval ratings are so low—43% as of November 24—given that his infrastructure bill has passed and he appears to have brokered a deal to get the Build Back Better bill passed as well. Yes, there were hiccups: we still have problems at the border, there’s inflation, and the Afghanistan withdrawal wasn’t very tidy. But Biden’s left-centrist agenda is doing quite well. So why the disapproval? A new piece by the liberal writer Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine has a thoughtful (and long) take on the issue. Click on the screenshot to read:
The upshot is at the beginning:
But the truth is that Biden’s presidency began to disintegrate without his abandoning the center at all. He found himself trapped instead between a well-funded left wing that has poisoned the party’s image with many of its former supporters and centrists unable to conceive of their job in any terms save as valets for the business elite. Biden’s party has not veered too far left or too far right so much as it has simply come apart.
. . . The split within the Democratic Party runs along educational lines. The party’s college-educated cadre holds more liberal views and is increasingly estranged from its working-class counterparts. Those non-college-educated voters are disproportionately Latino and Black, but their worldview bears similarities to that of the white working-class voters who have left the party. The college-educated wing might have claimed power in the name of minority voters, but in reality it has started to drive them away.
Yes, Chait thinks that Biden is the unfortunate but innocent victim of a war within the Democratic Party. On one side is the Left and the intellectuals, fervently backing causes (open borders, defunding police, etc.) that aren’t popular with Middle America and non-college-educated folks. And the “progressive Left” doesn’t seem to grasp that minorities like blacks and Hispanics are more conservative than everyone imagines. The Right, of course, tries to label all Democrats as wokies like AOC and Elizabeth Warren, and they’ve done pretty well at that game. There is seemingly no end to the performative craziness that characterizes the extreme Left.
On the other side are the centrists, whom you’d think would ally with Biden. But they’re fueled, says Chait, by Big Business, which is pumping money and ideas into the centrist moiety of the party in a way that actually stalls Biden’s agenda (think Manchin, Sinema, and their allies in the House). In the meantime, the Democratic Party circles the drain as the internecine squabbling continues, ignoring the main concerns of Americans.
Here are a few quotes from an article well worth reading. There are many more examples in each area, so have a look at NY Magazine. I’ve tried to summarize the argument under a few subheadings. Quotes from Chait are indented.
What Americans want.
One recent poll asked voters to identify the features of the Build Back Better plan that most appealed to them. The top five were, in order, adding dental and vision benefits to Medicare, home health care for the elderly and disabled, letting Medicare negotiate prescription-drug prices, Medicare coverage for hearing, and free community college. Democratic centrists in the Senate eliminated three of them from the bill completely and gutted a fourth. “Bizarrely,” observed Democratic pollster William Jordan in September, “the parts of Biden’s agenda that are most popular seem to be most at risk right now.”
The centrists did not, for the most part, object to the spending. What they ruled out was the policies Biden had come up with to pay for the spending. Most of the money would come from tax hikes on corporations and people earning more than $400,000 a year, cracking down on tax cheats, and letting Medicare negotiate what it pays for pharmaceuticals, which cost Americans more than twice as much as in peer countries. All those measures actually made the popular spending plans even more popular. Raising taxes on the rich commands near two-to-one support. And pollsters have said negotiating drug costs is literally the most popular idea they have ever tested.
What Americans don’t want.
During the 2020 primary campaign, progressive commentators were writing columns on a near-daily basis insisting that none of this could hurt the party. Swing voters barely existed, left-wing policies were all popular, mobilizing the base mattered far more than appealing to moderates, and electability was just an empty buzzword used by a failed Establishment to fend off popular changes. For a while, these arguments carried the day as the leading Democratic candidates kept racing one another to endorse ideas that polled catastrophically: decriminalizing illegal border crossings (27 percent approval versus 66 percent disapproval), abolishing private health insurance (37 versus 58), and providing government health insurance for people who immigrated illegally (38 versus 59).
. . .The grim irony is that, in attempting to court non-white voters, Democrats ended up turning them off. It was not only that they got the data wrong — they were also courting these “marginalized communities” in ways that didn’t appeal to them. For the reality is that the Democratic Party’s most moderate voters are disproportionately Latino and Black.
In 2020, even as Biden improved on Clinton’s performance among white voters, Black support for Trump rose by three percentage points from four years before, and Latino support rose eight points. The California recall election and Virginia governor’s race this year both showed at least some evidence that Latino voters are continuing to slip away from Democrats. The 2021 New York mayoral election was marked by heavily Asian American neighborhoods flipping Republican.
Confounding the liberal assumption that immigrant communities demand more lenient border policies, many signs suggest the swing is a result of their wanting stricter enforcement. Some of Trump’s largest gains came in Mexican American precincts in Texas; Biden’s approval rating among Hispanic Texans stood at 37 percent in late September, with just 26 percent approving of his handling of the border. Their dismay was not that Biden has deported too many immigrants; by a 20-point margin, they registered their support for deporting Haitian refugees.
How the Left screwed up.
There was never a world in which a concept supported by less than 20 percent of the public [“defunding the police”] was going to emerge victorious.
Yet activist groups of all stripes rushed to join the defund movement, including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and dozens of climate groups. Those endorsements have continued to blow back in the faces of Democrats. Virginia Republicans in this year’s election learned they could attack any Democrats receiving endorsements from these groups as gaining support from “pro-defund” organizations, and one Democrat declined an endorsement from NARAL, an abortion-rights group, in order to avoid being linked to police defunding.
Elizabeth’s Warren’s campaign exemplifies the toxicity of Wokeism. (Warren was at one time my go-to Democratic candidate.)
Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign in 2020 may offer the single most instructive example of the distorting effects of the progressive-activist complex. Warren began her presidential candidacy with some liabilities — most obviously, she was a woman running after an election many Democrats believed they had lost because of sexism — but also many strengths. She had earned a reputation as a hard-nosed champion of economic reform. Her platform was simultaneously aggressive yet broadly acceptable within the party.
Over the course of her campaign, though, Warren found herself both racing to outflank Sanders to her left and unable to expand her base beyond college-educated liberals. Persist, Warren’s campaign memoir, chronicles her dogged and largely successful efforts to win the approval of political activists. She proudly notes that a 2015 address at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston was called “the speech that Black Lives Matter activists had been waiting for” by the Washington Post. At another speech in 2018, she declared, “The hard truth about our criminal-justice system: It’s racist … front to back.”
The book quotes an activist’s tweet approving of her criminal-justice plan, her well-received appearance at the “She the People” forum, her endorsement by Black Womxn For. At no point, however, does she show any sign of grasping the disconnect between the preferences of progressive activists and those of minority voters. Indeed, as Warren’s campaign went on, her strategy devolved into issuing more (and more left-wing) policy promises, lining up more activist groups, getting more positive tweets.
The progressive-foundation complex was designed to lift up a candidate like Warren. Instead, it swallowed her in a trap, luring her deeper and deeper into a worldview increasingly alien to the voters she needed to win.
How the Left-centrists screwed up. This is the part that I find the least convincing, but it is true that those who consider themselves centrists include those blocking the Build Back Better bill.
“We can’t go too far left,” warned Joe Manchin. “This is not a center-left or a left country. We are a center — if anything, a little center-right — country; that’s being shown, and we ought to be able to recognize that.”
The news media, after years of covering the party’s sharp left turn, were primed to accept this interpretation. “Tonight really empowers Manchin and [Kyrsten] Sinema,” a Democratic strategist told Politico. “Joe Manchin’s wing of the Democratic Party will seem much more crowded today,” observed the congressional tip sheet Punchbowl News.
But this seemingly intuitive response had its diagnosis backward. Rather than helping to correct the Democrats’ problems with the electorate, Manchin, Sinema, and their centrist House allies have compounded them. The story of Biden’s domestic agenda is that it was crippled by a small but crucial faction of Democrats who came to be persuaded by the C-suite view of the world. And all the while, those Democrats persuaded themselves that they were the authentic voices of the people.
The effect of the lobbyists on the center.
It was not quite as simple as wealthy people showing up in Washington with suitcases full of cash. But in some cases, at least, it wasn’t that far from the truth. Former North Dakota Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp was lobbying against changes to a notorious tax loophole permitting capital gains to escape taxation if the owners passed it on to their children — a loophole she had not long before called “one of the biggest scams in the history of forever.” Former Arkansas Democratic senator Blanche Lincoln, who had once campaigned on a promise to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, was lobbying against it on behalf of Big Pharma. And former Montana senator Max Baucus was writing op-eds arguing against various tax hikes for the rich while refusing to tell reporters who was paying for his consulting business.
. . .Over the summer and fall, item after item in the Biden agenda was suddenly plagued by a handful of Democrats expressing quiet doubts. Many of these doubts seemed new. When Sinema ran for Senate in 2018, she made reducing prescription-drug prices a core promise. And yet by 2021, she had turned sharply against her previous position.
The most spectacular success of this lobbying campaign was not merely that it persuaded a crucial faction of Democrats to ignore both the voters and their own policy wonks to side with organized business interests. It was that they managed to coat an agenda that was in its specifics as electorally toxic as defunding the police with the pleasant sheen of “centrism.”
. . . The independent variable here is not Biden moving to the left; it is congressional centrists counterposing themselves against Biden in a way that makes them look more centrist but also makes Biden look simultaneously more left wing and less effective.
What Biden wants to do, but is stymied.
Biden’s legislative strategy has closely hewed to Shorist principles. Biden has tried to keep the political conversation framed as closely as possible around issues in which he and his party have an advantage: handling the pandemic and rebuilding the economy. His economic program has carefully avoided any controversial social debates and focused on a highly popular combination of raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy and redistributing the proceeds to the working and middle class through programs like universal access to child care, community college, and a child tax credit.
. . . In one sense, the strategy has worked perfectly. Biden’s program has avoided generating the kind of angry public backlash that rose up against Obama (and Bill Clinton before him). Indeed, Biden’s agenda has proved so uncontroversial that Republicans have barely roused themselves to denounce it at all, instead focusing on whatever culture-war chum floats across Fox News, from Dr. Seuss to COVID-vaccine mandates. Even the expected grumbling from progressives has largely failed to materialize because the agenda included an ambitious list of progressive economic priorities that no less a left-wing eminence than Sanders described as “the most consequential piece of legislation for working families since the 1930s.” Democratic pollster Sean McElwee told CNN he detected no divide between liberal and centrist Democratic voters, all of whom supported Biden’s program.
. . . The dream of a Rooseveltian presidency was always grandiose, not least because Biden lacks FDR’s giant majorities in Congress. Yet it was a sensible ambition in its form. Biden’s goal was to demonstrate the concrete benefits of good government and, in so doing, to disprove the cynical Trumpian claim that Washington was merely controlled by wealthy elites. The Democrats can still come through on that promise, if they can prevent the left wing and plutocratic center from pulling the party apart. But time is running out, and Trump is waiting.
It all makes sense, but of course this is all post hoc analysis of why Biden isn’t polling well. It may well be right, but the only way of testing it is to get rid of the Biden-impeding factors (which is impossible), and see if his numbers rise. I suspect that if the pandemic continues waning, and the Build Back Better plan passes with the bits that Americans actually want, then Biden will become more popular. But the border issue will remain, as will the “progressive” left, wedded to principles that won’t fly with the main body of the Left.
And Trump is waiting in the wings. . .