The Moment When Democrats Recovered Their Soul

Today on TAP: Joe Biden governs as if he were FDR

BY ROBERT KUTTNER

MARCH 31, 2021

Democrats got off track around 1967, when Lyndon Johnson, who was well on the way to becoming a second FDR, blew it all on Vietnam. He also sought to go FDR one better by getting serious about racial justice.

But that led to the infamous white backlash, as exploited by Nixon’s Southern strategy of coded racism. On both issues, Democrats splintered, and it’s been downhill ever since.

Under Carter, Clinton, and Obama, Democrats sought to recoup by becoming a Wall Street neoliberal party that was liberal-ish on social issues. That demolished any prospects of reviving a multiracial coalition based on common pocketbook interests. And so we got the Tea Parties and then Trump.

Now, something unexpected and miraculous is happening. Joe Biden, the most centrist of the 2020 Democratic field, is governing as if he were FDR.

The Democrats are Democrats again. On pocketbook help for struggling people. On public investment, big-time. On using public debt for public purposes. On taxing the rich. On backing the labor movement. Biden is taking risks to be a racial progressive. He is beginning to rein in corporate abuses. He has even defined infrastructure as not just bricks, mortar, and steel, but as caring infrastructure.

That model was there all along, waiting to be revived. But Biden’s three Democratic predecessors dismissed it and evaded it.

We can speculate on why Biden chose this path. Was it the pandemic? Was it Trump? Did the moment help him discover his inner progressive, which was hidden there all along?

The point is that he did it. And it is popular.

And Biden, unlike FDR and LBJ, is doing it with the slimmest of legislative majorities. But as Lincoln famously said, “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

And of course, public sentiment is not static. Success builds on success.

Now, we can depress ourselves with all the ways this could come off the rails.

The Democrats could lose their nerve on using budget reconciliation to pass all major economic legislation with a simple majority. Joe Manchin could continue to play the role of dog in the manger, and resist breaking the filibuster on other urgent legislation like voting rights. A Democratic senator could die, leaving Republicans to take back the Senate.

But remember, this wasn’t supposed to happen at all. Dems were not supposed to take back the Senate, and Biden was not supposed to be a progressive.

So for now, let us relish the moment and work to maximize it. I am not especially religious, but I am reminded of my favorite Jewish prayer, the Shehecheyanu, which gives thanks to the Almighty for allowing us to reach this day.

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