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Democrats Deliver?

Osita Nwanevu
7 min read
Democrats Deliver?
Biden, Harris, and Pelosi at the 2022 State of the Union (Office of U.S. House Speaker)

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


We’re at about the point in a midterm year when pundits start talking intensely about what they expect to happen in November. I don’t intend to do so ⁠— not just because I’m busy writing and thinking about other things, but because I think the loss of the Democratic governing majority is all but certain, because I doubt there’s anything that could be done to prevent it, and because no one who matters is really interested in the left’s advice anyway. Why would they be, when the usual brain trust is already hard at work? From The New York Times:

Democrats, Ms. Pelosi told Mr. Biden and a group of his aides, need a more succinct and consistent message. The speaker, who has long been fond of pithy, made-for-bumper-sticker mantras, offered a suggestion she had heard from members: Democrats deliver.
What Ms. Pelosi did not fully detail that February evening was that some of her party’s most politically imperiled lawmakers were revolting against Mr. Biden’s preferred slogan, “Build back better,” believing it had come to be a toxic phrase that only reminded voters of the party’s failure to pass its sweeping social policy bill. And what the president and his advisers did not tell the speaker was that they had already surveyed “Democrats deliver” with voters — and the response to it was at the bottom of those for the potential slogans they tested, according to people familiar with the research.

One problem with “Democrats Deliver” is that Democrats have not Delivered. As I’ve written before, the Rescue Plan and even the bipartisan infrastructure bill can be considered real accomplishments that materially improved the lives of just about all Americans. But the list of problems unaddressed and proposals abandoned by this administration is long. Politico recently summed them up, beginning with the Rescue Plan’s seemingly doomed expansion of the Child Tax Credit and the original care economy components of the Build Back Better plan:

The current status of the expanded child tax embodies the vise Democrats now find themselves in. The program was passed as part of the Covid relief plan passed last spring, granting families up to $3,600 per child in monthly payments. But it expired in December. Then the main vehicle for its extension — the Build Back Better bill — faltered, and Congress is unlikely to strike a deal this year to restore it, even in a reduced fashion.
[...] The expanded child tax credit is hardly the only place where progress has faltered. The White House also initially sought funding to upgrade child care facilities and create a nationwide pre-K program. It wanted to guarantee 12 weeks of paid leave and cap the cost of childcare for low-to-middle income families. Another $400 billion was planned for home and community-based care for older Americans and people with disabilities.
Those initiatives would slash families’ biggest expenses and grow the economy overall, supporters argue, chiefly by allowing more stay-at-home caregivers to re-enter the workforce. Democrats also hoped it would aid them politically, shoring up support among those managing the brunt of the pandemic: suburban women voters who also helped Biden take the presidency in 2020 and people of color who make up a core part of the party’s base.

None of that happened; it’s doubtful that any of it will. And as of the end of February, 31 House Democrats, seeing the writing plainly on the wall, have opted not to run for reelection ⁠— the most since 41 House Democrats bowed out in 1992. On Friday, Biden tried to offer some moral support to the rest of them. “Biden’s nearly 45-minute pep talk to House Democrats on Friday offered zero clue on how the leader of the party thought it should use its next nine months of unified government, including whether to revive his domestic agenda package that has been dead since Christmas,” Politico’s Nicholas Wu and Sarah Farris wrote. “As House Democrats frantically search for another piece of legislation to make their case to voters, Biden applied more pressure, calling the midterms the 'most important off-year election in modern history.'”

That’s a refrain most voters are accustomed to by now. Meanwhile in Europe, real and terrible history is being made. And some Democrats have reportedly been cheered by the small bump the war in Ukraine has evidently given Biden’s approval rating. It’s not likely to last. Fairly or not, Biden will take the hit if gas prices continue to rise and if the war drags on. The pandemic seems to be fading for now, but a new variant could emerge at any time, and it’s not clear how much credit Biden will get if things continue to improve.

Again, I doubt even the best version of the Biden administration and this Democratic Congress would have been able to keep full control. Still, there’s no point to politics if you don’t utilize power once you’ve gotten it. And we shouldn’t forget that Biden has unilateral control over important policymaking institutions ⁠—  Manchin and Sinema aren’t gumming up the executive branch.

The overcaution and even callousness of Biden’s administrative state was exemplified in two pieces on two issues this week. First, while ICE deportations have dropped dramatically under Biden, a portion of that drop is attributable to Title 42, a public health rule the Trump administration used to turn away migrants at the border without screenings ⁠— expulsions that don’t count as formal deportations. At Mother Jones, Fernanda Echavarri covered the push from immigration advocates and even senior Democrats like Chuck Schumer to get the Biden administration to rescind the rule:

A key point in much of the pushback against Biden’s continued use of Title 42 is that things with the pandemic look incredibly different now as compared to when the obscure rule was first used in March 2020: Back then, testing was scarce, masks were hard to find, the vaccines were a hopeful thought, and we knew little about the virus. Today, the message from the White House is that we can go back to almost pre-pandemic life—except at the border.
It is far past time to restore access to legal and life saving asylum at our border,” Menendez said.
But the Biden administration hasn’t just continued implementing Title 42, it has even defended the policy in court despite knowing that health conditions continue to evolve, and even as health care experts question its efficacy and call for its end.
[...] Beyond being cruel, it’s also important to remember that Title 42 is dangerous. It has played a role in the high number of border crossings reported by US Customs and Border Protection because many migrants who are quickly expelled try to cross again; some do it in more remote areas to avoid being caught, which has contributed to more rescues of migrants in distress, and more deaths along the border. KIND’s Odom said she is deeply concerned that because of Title 42, unaccompanied minors are risking their lives trying to cross unnoticed, and are getting lost in the desert.

Now on Saturday, the administration did announce that it would fully end Title 42 for unaccompanied children, who had already been exempted from the policy, in response to a Texas court ruling. But the rule remains in place for everyone else, even as the pandemic continues to improve. The CDC is set to complete a review of Title 42 by the end of the month.

At Politico Magazine on Sunday, Renuka Rayasam covered the administration’s handling of another policy inherited from the Trump White House ⁠— a move to expedite the prosecution of drug dealers who sell substances similar to fentanyl:

Federal authorities usually go through a multistep checklist to classify, or schedule, an individual drug into a certain category, which then determines how easily it can be researched and whether it merits criminal penalties. Some fentanyl analogues have already been individually tested and scheduled. But the 2018 order puts fentanyl copycats, which can include thousands of substances, into the government’s strictest drug control category — Schedule I, which also includes heroin, marijuana, LSD and ecstasy — without that scientific review. This represents the first time an entire category of drugs has been scheduled based on chemical structure alone.
In some cases, those fentanyl analogues can be more powerful than fentanyl, which is in the slightly less restrictive Schedule II category. But in other cases, analogues can be harmless or even potentially therapeutic. The FDA has testified that at least one new, potential overdose-reversal agent has fallen victim to the class-wide scheduling order.

Here, Democrats and the Biden administration have straightforwardly maintained and defended Trump’s policy ⁠— it’s been renewed five times since Biden took office ⁠— even as its impact on low-level offenders and minorities has become clearer. “In the defense community, this is crack 2.0,” public defender Jeffrey Lazarus told Politico. “Our eyes are opened but no one wants to acknowledge disparities.”

One of the men federal prosecutors caught in 2018 was Todd Coleman, a small-time drug dealer in Lorain County, who received a 10-year prison sentence for distributing about two tablespoons of drugs laced with fentanyl-related substances. About a year and half into Coleman’s sentence, Patricia Richman contacted Coleman’s lawyer, assistant federal public defender Jeffrey Lazarus.
Because data about the scheduling order had been hard to come by, Richman was doing her own digging into the impact. With Richman’s help, Lazarus went through his old cases and realized he had missed something in Coleman’s case. One of the drugs that Coleman sold and that a crime lab had identified in fact had already been removed from the schedules, and the other one wasn’t even harmful. He shouldn’t have been charged at all under the emergency order, but because of its breadth, neither prosecutors nor the defense realized the error at the time. A judge eventually resentenced Coleman to three years for selling cocaine, instead of the 10 years he had initially received. Last week, Coleman moved into a halfway house in Cleveland from a federal prison in West Virginia.
[...] Lazarus told me that even though Lorain County is majority-white, most of his clients prosecuted under this emergency authorization are Black. They are getting tougher sentences compared with defendants charged with other drug crimes, and no options for treatment, he says. Many, like Coleman, are at the bottom of the drug distribution food chain and say they aren’t quite sure what’s in the pills and powders they are selling.

In both cases, what the administration should do as a matter of policy is clear. I actually think what the administration should do as a matter of politics is clear too ⁠— reverse the policies without making much of a to-do about it, while staying ready to defend the changes to the hilt from any pushback. But for all the yammering people have done about Democratic strategy and the choices we have to make in politics over the last year, it’s still not altogether clear to me what the popularists would recommend here, if anything. The safest course, surely, is to keep both Trump policies in place ⁠— accepting material harm to people like Coleman and migrant families to prevent Republicans from hitting Biden for being soft on immigration and crime. This kind of thinking seems foolhardy to me for reasons I won’t relitigate again. What’s the point, really? These questions about how Democrats ought to use and talk about their power in Washington aren’t going to trouble the party for much longer.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

The left-wing activist Gabriel Boric has been sworn in as Chile’s youngest-ever president. Al Jazeera:

A Song

“Blown Away” - Pixies