Which is worse for a majority party, being accused of doing too much or being accused of doing too little?
Ezra Klein had a smart piece on this topic in Sunday's New York Times. As Ezra notes, Democrats have a (very narrow) majority in Congress for two years. They shouldn't count on more than that, given how midterms usually go. And they'll be judged at the next election based on what they're able to do in this very short time span.
(Indeed, two years may be the optimistic view. Of the ten oldest US Senators, seven are in states with Republican governors, and there's a pandemic going around that targets old people. Democrats governed like they had two years to work with at the beginning of 2009, but then suddenly Ted Kennedy died and was replaced by a Republican, depriving them of their filibuster-proof majority after less than a year.)
Ezra takes the particular stance that if Democrats want any shot at retaining power in 2022, they need to govern boldly. If they worry less about appearing bipartisan or concerned about the debt, they can make some significant changes to federal policy that actually improve people's lives. If they do, Ezra says, voters will reward them for it. If they don't, it will feed into populist authoritarian narratives that government is ineffective, paving the way for Trump or the next incarnation of him to return to power.
As evidence, Ezra points to the Democrats during Obama's first two years in the White House:
They didn’t squander the moment. They passed the stimulus and Obamacare and Dodd-Frank. They saved the auto industry and prevented a second Great Depression and, for good measure, drove the largest investment in clean energy infrastructure in American history. But too little of their work was evident in 2010, when Democrats were running for re-election. The result was, as President Barack Obama put it, “a shellacking.” Democrats lost six Senate seats and 63 House seats. They also lost 20 state legislatures, giving Republicans control of the decennial redistricting process.
Okay, this is where I kind of disagree. That's actually a hell of a record of legislative accomplishment -- it was one of the most productive congresses we've seen in decades. And yet it ran into one of the biggest rebukes of a governing party on record.
In a paper I did a while back with Brendan Nyhan, John Sides, Steven Greene, and Eric McGhee, we found that Democratic House members running for reelection in 2010 were punished for participating in this productivity. Those Democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act did worse in the 2010 elections than those who voted against it. Voting for Obamacare made Democrats look more liberal and more out of step with their districts, which hurt them electorally. Several other major bills that session had a similar effect on Democratic careers. Indeed, the Obamacare vote likely cost Democrats their majority in the House.
Obamacare was correctly perceived as a tradeoff; it was a longstanding priority for the party that could well cost it its majority. The question was whether majorities are for preserving or for using.
And this idea that a vote for Obamacare (or any other major Democratic priority) was potentially costly was certainly on the minds of Democrats at the time. Speaker Pelosi made a point of releasing Democrats in moderate districts from any obligation to vote for it once she had the bare minimum to support the bill. Obamacare was correctly perceived as a tradeoff; it was a longstanding priority for the party that could well cost it its majority. The question was whether majorities are for preserving or for using.
Now, could a different set of reforms during that session actually have helped Americans more quickly? Sure. A larger stimulus bill, health insurance options they could immediately buy into, and so forth, certainly might have helped. The Covid stimulus that Congress approved in the spring of 2020 may have actually helped mitigate Republican losses in last fall's election. But generally, two years is just not a great time span for making legislative changes that materially affect people's lives to the point that they notice it and credit the party in power.
And there's another wrinkle: what if actual legislative achievements just don't matter all that much in elections? Here's a preview of the 2022 Republican message: Democrats are socialists, and they are the real racists for bringing up race all the time. It's quite possible that Covid will be a thing of the past by then and that the economy will have substantially rebounded and life in general will be a lot better. The Republican message will still be that Democrats are socialists, and they are the real racists for bringing up race all the time.
I honestly don't think this messaging does a whole lot. Yes, Republicans used it in 2020 and won some seats, but they also used it in 2018 and lost a ton of seats. But the idea that a highly productive Democratic Congress over the next two years will prove to many Americans that government can be a force for good and push back against the cynical populist wave strikes me as unrealistic. Does anyone think that Trump's appeal in 2016 was rooted in empirical reality?
Democrats should push the agenda they care about -- including voter protection, vaccine expansion, economic improvement, racial justice, and more -- because they care about it, because that's what majorities are for. If those result in some material improvements in people's lives before next November, that may well help Democrats electorally, but they shouldn't count on it.