The new president seeks to transform the country without the broad mandate required.
Just 10 weeks into the Biden administration, the new president’s governing vision has come into focus. He plans to transform America in multiple ways based on a popular mandate that doesn’t exist. This represents an audacity that likely will ensure that history will peg Joe Biden as a man who, when faced with a country in severe civic turbulence, further agitated the roiling waters of national politics.
To comprehend the significance of this development, compare Biden’s presidential victory last fall with those of the 20th century’s two most transformative presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Both redirected the course of American politics, and in pushing their bold agendas each had at his back a magnitude of popular support that constituted a mandate from the American people for change and experimentation. Absent that, a new president generally must build a mandate through careful and judicious decision making designed to fashion a governing coalition over time.
Roosevelt, as a challenger at the height of the Great Depression, amassed a popular vote total of 57.4 percent, with an Electoral College outcome of 472 to just 59 for the Republican incumbent, Herbert Hoover. FDR’s Democratic Party picked up 97 House seats that year and 12 Senate seats. After the election, Democrats controlled fully 313 House seats, compared to just 117 controlled by Republicans; in the Senate it was 59 Democrats to 36 Republicans.
Similarly, Reagan in 1980 knocked out of office the incumbent Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, by amassing just under 51 percent of the popular vote, but in a three-way race in which the independent candidate, John Anderson, pulled 6.6 percent. Reagan’s Electoral College margin was 489 to just 89 for Carter, and the GOP that year picked up 12 Senate seats to take control of that chamber for the first time in nearly three decades. Though Republicans picked up 33 House seats, they remained the minority party in the House by a significant margin.
But the mandate represented by Reagan’s victory went beyond those numbers. Many congressional Democrats who survived the GOP onslaught quickly acquired powerful fears that their constituents would turn on them if they flouted the lessons of the electoral outcome. Some 63 House Democrats joined Republicans in passing Reagan’s 1981 budget blueprint, and 48 Democratic representatives crossed over to support Reagan’s controversial tax-cut program. In both instances, these Democrats spurned impassioned entreaties from their political leaders to demonstrate party solidarity. Instead, they joined the Reagan consensus and strengthened it.
Taken together, these numbers and behavioral changes demonstrated that large numbers of Americans wanted change as articulated and promised by FDR in 1932 and Reagan in 1980. In both instances, there was never any doubt that such change would come from the American people and not from the political elites.
That’s not what we see today. Biden was elected with 51.3 percent of the popular vote, similar to Reagan’s 1980 vote total. But the Democrats lost 12 House seats while picking up three in the Senate. And the margin of the Democrats’ governmental dominance could hardly be more thin or rickety. The Senate breakdown is 50-50, with the chamber in Democratic hands only through the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Harris. The Democrats’ House margin is just 219 to 211, meaning a loss of more than three Democratic votes would produce a floor defeat on any issue if Republicans stay united in opposition.
Thus, can we see that there is today no broad national consensus for transformational change of the kind that the American people fostered with their votes in 1932 and 1980. In fact, America today resides upon a knife’s edge of politics, with a near-parity in the relative power of the two major parties, and a chasm between them in terms of their respective views of the essence of America and the shape of its future. And yet the president and his congressional allies seem bent on busting through this elemental political reality and enacting an agenda that will leave America a fundamentally different country. Absent a popular consensus for such an agenda, it will widen the chasm dividing the nation and enflame the raw political sensibilities of our time.
On immigration, Biden has signaled a Democratic embrace of what can only be called an open-border sensibility, as manifest in several significant Biden actions: taking steps to curtail deportations of illegals; reversing Trump policies aimed at discouraging mass migrations; stirring a large migrant wave with welcoming language; addressing the resulting border chaos not with efforts to stem the tide but rather with promises of better influx management; fostering Democratic talk of legalization for undocumented residents.
But there is no national consensus for any open-border policy in America. Indeed, a close analysis of the 2016 presidential campaign and its outcome suggests that immigration contributed more powerfully to Donald Trump’s presidential victory than any other single issue. Such definitional controversies, inextricably tied to emotional questions of what kind of country we will be, should be addressed through consensus politics. Biden seems to have in mind something closer to steamroller politics.
Or consider Biden’s huge spending and social-policy programs, to cost some $3 trillion to $4 trillion, on top of his $1.9 trillion COVID relief measure. These would thrust the federal government more deeply and broadly than ever into American life and commerce: into green energy, home-health care, child-care facilities, education, affordable housing, electric vehicles (and charging stations), labor-management relations, student-debt relief, racial “equity,” state taxation prerogatives, and more.
Much of this no doubt is popular, some of it meritorious. But government spending always carries with it prospects for greater governmental intrusion and control, and the sheer magnitude of the spending raises questions about what kind of country we will be. The Biden agenda, write Jacob M. Schlesinger and Andrew Restuccia in The Wall Street Journal, represents “a major turning point for economic policy,” based on the view, widely debunked in the Reagan era, that “government can be a primary driver for growth.”
Perhaps it can, and that’s a worthy topic of debate. But is there a consensus for this unprecedented degree of governmental activism? Not based on any political evidence.
Further, the Biden agenda includes a voting-rights initiative that would transfer jurisdiction over federal elections from the states, where it has resided since the beginning of the republic, to the government in Washington. This would be a momentous move, fraught with prospects for all manner of electoral abuse by officials further removed from the reach of the people. Again, there is little evidence of any national consensus for such a significant federal power grab, but it is moving through Congress nonetheless.
Which brings us to the Senate filibuster, designed as an enforcement mechanism to ensure that Congress legislates by consensus on big issues affecting the definition and direction of the nation. Thus, it stands in the way of the Biden agenda, given the Democrats’ paper-thin margin of congressional control. And so, Democrats now want to gut the filibuster rule. The first step, taken Monday, would allow for the manipulation of the congressional “reconciliation” procedures, designed to smooth the way for strictly defined fiscal legislation and to be used only once in any given fiscal year. To that end, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer received a ruling from the Senate parliamentarian allowing, under prescribed circumstances, the use of reconciliation a second time, after its previous use for Biden’s big COVID-relief legislation. Thus Schumer prepares to effectively nullify the filibuster for at least one other major piece of legislation to further the president’s bold agenda. Whether he will seek to end or curb the actual filibuster rule remains an open question.
Most likely Schumer will try if he thinks he can pull it off. Could he pull it off? That’s the big question for Biden and his party as they push their audacious program to change America through a consensus-free political environment. As the Washington Post reported the other day, Democrats are emboldened by early polls showing even some Republicans favor Biden’s brand of bold action. The piece quoted a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as saying Republicans “are again putting themselves on the wrong side of voters who overwhelmingly want action and results on these issues.” The piece added that Democratic leaders are prepared to “dare their GOP counterparts to stand in the way” of their big initiative.
Based on extensive interviews in three swing congressional districts, however, the paper suggested that “attacks on the spending push are beginning to take hold.” It said that the window of cooperation seems to have closed already for congressional Republicans—”and it may be closing for GOP voters, as well.” Would that induce some swing-district Democrats to desert the party on some crucial votes?
Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, in the meantime, the Biden plan is highly incendiary, in part because of the boldness of its intent to remake America, and in part because the boldness is backed up by no consensus. When Joe Biden was elected, he inherited a cleft nation, riled up over definitional issues, its political temperature rising ominously. He promised “unity” and serene waters. His actions so far seem destined to yield instead further voter anxiety, political strife, and civic instability.
Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent and Congressional Quarterly CEO, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy, including Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians (Simon & Schuster).
Robert W. Merry
The American Conservative