Thursday, January 21, 2021


In his latest New York Times column, Ezra Klein makes some important points: If Democrats want to avoid losing their slim House and Senate majorities in the next midterm cycle, they need to do big, noticeable things that make people's lives better -- and that will probably require them to nuke the filibuster in the Senate.

But this gives me pause:
Among the many tributaries flowing into Trumpism, one in particular has gone dangerously overlooked. In their book “Presidents, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy,” the political scientists William Howell and Terry Moe write that “populists don’t just feed on socioeconomic discontent. They feed on ineffective government — and their great appeal is that they claim to replace it with a government that is effective through their own autocratic power.”

Donald Trump was this kind of populist. Democrats mocked his “I alone can fix it” message for its braggadocio and feared its authoritarianism, but they did not take seriously the deep soil in which it was rooted: The American system of governance is leaving too many Americans to despair and misery, too many problems unsolved, too many people disillusioned. It is captured by corporations and paralyzed by archaic rules. It is failing, and too many Democrats treat its failures as regrettable inevitabilities rather than a true crisis.
Except that Trump didn't replaced ineffective government with effective government. That's become obvious to most of us during the pandemic -- though not to the 74 million people who voted for Trump. They think he did a good job managing the virus. They think he built the wall. (He built a small part of it.) They think he brought coal back and manufacturing jobs back. (He didn't.) They think he was personally responsible for a rip-roaring economy. (It was a continuation of the Obama economy.)

Klein makes a point about President Obama's policies being slow to deliver benefits (Obamacare) or delivering them so subtly that voters didn't notice:
The Obama administration believed that if you got the policy right, the politics would follow. That led, occasionally, to policies that almost entirely abandoned politics, so deep ran the faith in clever design. The Making Work Pay tax credit, which was a centerpiece of the Recovery Act, was constructed to be invisible — the Obama administration, working off new research in behavioral economics, believed Americans would be more likely to spend a windfall that they didn’t know they got. “When all was said and done, only around 10 percent of people who received benefits knew they had received something from the government,” says Suzanne Mettler, a political scientist at Cornell. You don’t get re-elected for things voters don’t know you did.
Klein is right -- you don’t get re-elected for things voters don’t know you did. But Trump almost got re-elected for things he didn't do but his voters thought he did.

And that isn't just because Trump is an unusually shameless braggart. George W. Bush got reelected in 2004 for "keeping America safe" after being asleep at the switch in the months leading up to the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil. He also got reelected for his consduct of the war -- which was clearly a diaster by 2004.

Biden isn't likely to do anything of the sort by 2022 or 2024. Even highly charismatic Democratic presidents -- Obama, Clinton -- don't pound their chests and tell you they solved all your problems when they didn't. Republicans are much better at this, and have a much more effective propaganda machine to reinforce their messaging.

That puts Democrats at a disadvantage. They need to deliver results because they won't simply insist that they already delivered them.

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