Friday, February 02, 2024


Ezra Klein almost gets it. In a new column, he praises the Biden administration's concrete accomplishments, but says the Democratic Party, in trying to reelect Biden, is focused on democracy -- an abstraction. This is my characterization of what Klein writes. I don't think he fully understands what he's writing:
Biden’s first term has been impressive, legislatively speaking, and the bills he and the Democrats passed are the most ambitious effort to change America’s built environment since the construction of the Interstate System of highways, if not before.

But his re-election campaign launched not by describing what he has transformed but by describing what he is still seeking to safeguard. “Whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time, and it’s what the 2024 election is all about,” Biden said.
Klein thinks that what's important here is that the Democratic Party "has become both the party of progressivism and of preservation, the party that promises both to defend American institutions and to reform them." But do ordinary voters really think in political-science abstractions like these? I think ordinary voters want to know what you've done for them lately, though they'll also vote for your party if you can persuade them that the other party will do really terrible things to them. (That's how George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988.) Either way, they're interested in what's tangible.

Klein alludes to real things the Biden administration has done -- then he tells us that the president isn't running on real things. He also quotes one Democrat saying that on real issues that matter to people, Democratic voters feel they're losing ground:
“I’ve definitely been in rooms where people are frustrated they’re spending so much of their time protecting things that our parents’ generation fought for,” Senator [Cory] Booker, of New Jersey, said. “Union organizing rights. Women’s rights. Civil rights. Voting rights. A lot of the battles we’re fighting are battles where we feel we’re in the majority. That is frustrating, but also motivating.”
And he quotes a Republican pollster saying -- correctly -- that Trump is running on concrete issues:
Biden and his allies are framing this election as order against chaos. The party that gets things done against the party that will make America come undone. Kristen Soltis Anderson, a co-founder of the Republican polling firm Echelon Insights, believes that the Democrats are right that voters are craving stability. But she thinks they refuse to see that Trump is leading in many polls because voters believe that he is the one who might offer it. What Trump is pitching, she said, is a “push for order — ‘I am going to be the one who secures the border. I’m going to be the one that cracks down on crime. I’m going to be the one that tries to stabilize your prices.’”
You may not like much of what Trump is promising to do as president, you may not believe he can do it (closing the border, negotiating a responsible end to the war in Ukraine, lowering grocery prices), and you may think he's concealing his real agenda, but notice that he's promising to do real stuff. What are the real things Biden is promising to do, besides preserving democracy?

Klein notes that Democrats at the state and local levels are winning on concrete issues:
In 2018 — a banner year for Democrats — Jared Polis won the Colorado governorship by almost 11 percentage points. In 2022 — a much harder year for Democrats — he won re-election by nearly 20 points.

“Democrats can’t just be the party of protecting liberal democracy,” he told me. “That’s not the top voting issue for most Americans. For them, it’s really about how you’ll improve my life. We focus our agenda on reducing costs — particularly on reducing housing costs.” ...
("Democrats can’t just be the party of protecting liberal democracy.... For [most Americans], it’s really about how you’ll improve my life." Exactly.)
“The experience of being in a really competitive state suggests that what the Democratic Party is, at its core, is very different than what you see on Twitter or in the national debates,” Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said. “Fundamentally, Democrats are the people who are in politics to make government work for people, which is a very old, New Deal-conception of what the Democratic Party is about.”

As Wikler watched this message win Tony Evers the governorship of Wisconsin and Gretchen Whitmer the governorship of Michigan, he came to a theory of why it works so well in places where Democrats have so recently struggled. “When you talk to inconsistent voters and swing voters, you see a very high level of cynicism that government can ever deliver,” he told me. “To be persuasive to them, you need to credibly describe what kind of change you can generate and on what kind of things. And it tends to be on things that people know the government already does. That’s how you wind up with Whitmer and Evers running on fixing the damn roads in 2018. Then they did fix the damn roads. And then they got re-elected.”
They were also re-elected in 2022 to preserve or reinstate abortion rights -- a real issue that affects real people.

Klein correctly observes that this is a winning approach for Democrats in purple states. But he misses the obvious point: This is a purple country, and presidential elections are decided in purple states, therefore Democrats should run this way nationwide. Their presidential candidate should emphasize the real things he's done and the real things he intends to do, and he should also talk about the scary real things Republicans will do if elected -- on reproductive rights, healthcare, education, labor rights, taxation, LGBTQ rights, and a host of other issues. Just talking about democracy all the time won't get it done. Make it real for voters. That's how Biden can win.

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