In a meeting with historians at the White House, President Biden told Rick Perlstein, “I want to change the paradigm.” He was talking about the government-is-the-problem mantra that’s guided policy in official Washington since the Reagan years. Sensing the moment, Biden believes he can redirect the national conversation away from the tax-averse, spending-constrained logic that allowed Republicans to cut taxes when they were in power and block funding for government programs when they were not. As long as enough people felt government didn’t work it was politically impossible for Democrats to fund large-scale social programs that might have proved otherwise, forcing the pro-government party to compete on Republican terms. Biden is betting that the pandemic will allow him to break this forty-year-old dynamic. He may be right.
I recently wrote about how the ease with which Covid relief legislation chugged through the legislative process represented a head-spinning contrast with the last two times Democrats held the federal trifecta. We can see this as an isolated incident contingent on a set of factors specific to public opinion after a year of the pandemic. But it is also the case that seemingly isolated incidents, when they occur at the end stage of a party system, can be evidence of a sea change in our politics that outlasts the crisis. Indeed, the conditions that facilitated Biden’s mammoth legislative victory resemble other historical inflection points, most notably FDR’s New Deal and — to a large extent — the rise of Reaganism itself. In both cases, the ideology of the dominant political party fueled a failed response to a national crisis, enabling the opposition party to rise to power and implement solutions that previously were just not viable. In Biden’s case, anti-government notions are being repudiated by an administration with strong liberal impulses and a public ready for effective federal solutions to the pandemic and the economic crisis it created.
From this perspective, the fact that Democrats were able in a matter of weeks to move a massive progressive bill through a divided congress could be evidence that a lasting realignment is in the works, depending on how the legislation is received and how effectively the Biden administration follows up. On this point, I wrote last fall that “the sun is setting on the Reagan era” but we don’t yet know what will replace it:
Since Trump’s election, signs of the end of the Reagan era could be seen in the general dysfunction of congressional Republicans and in Trump’s chronic inability to claim majority support for his administration. The global pandemic has revealed what’s left of the coalition to be rigid in its beliefs and incapable of addressing the social and economic hardships of our time. Donald Trump’s laissez-faire claim that the coronavirus “is what it is” and his accompanying dictate to just live with it rings hollow for those suffering under the weight of the crisis, even as it aligns with the “government is the problem” mindset that has driven American politics for the past forty years.
Since then, we have seen Biden and congressional Democrats deliver progressive legislation worthy of the New Deal that is overwhelmingly supported by the public despite our intractable divisions. They hope to follow up with an even larger infrastructure bill which is just as overwhelmingly popular, even though it promises to add trillions in spending on top of the expensive Covid package. It’s significant that large majorities support the infrastructure plan even when they are told that taxes on the wealthy will be raised to finance part of it. When asked if they prefer to pay for the infrastructure bill with tax increases or social spending cuts, voters choose tax increases by a 35-point margin. Independent voters select tax increases by a 25-point margin. These are simply not Reagan-era values.
Just as noteworthy is the inability of the opposition to mount a coherent challenge to Biden’s efforts or score political points from obstructing them. Even though Republicans were unable to offer a rationale for their refusal to engage the administration in serious negotiations over Covid relief, this past week Mitch McConnell made it clear he intends to do the same with the infrastructure plan, declaring that his caucus would not provide a single vote for it. During the last two Democratic administrations, McConnell’s power play would have unleashed a torrent of opinion pieces about how Democrats are to blame for not being bipartisan, leading squeamish Democrats from purple states and districts to call on the administration to scale back their initiatives, resulting in the formation of a bipartisan “gang” of senators that would spend six months watering down the proposal so that their compromise could be further whittled and then rejected by most Republicans and some nervous Democrats. If this strategy wasn’t enough to stop a proposal in its tracks, any legislation that staggered to a floor vote would have been poisoned by lengthy public exposure to partisan bickering and sustained Republican attacks on big government. Then — having been weakened of its potential at the alter of illusive bipartisanship — it would have been vilified by Republicans as an ill-guided example of ineffectual liberal legislating and offered as Exhibit A for why it was essential for swing voters to prevent Democratic overreach by putting Republicans in charge of Congress.
None of this is happening today. It didn’t happen with Covid relief and the administration has made it clear they do not intend to allow it to happen with the infrastructure bill. Biden just keeps pushing ahead and carrying congressional Democrats with him — something Obama and Clinton hoped to do with larger congressional majorities but found impossible. This is not because Biden is a better politician than his predecessors. It’s because he’s a good enough politician to read the moment correctly, and the moment gives him a once-in-two-generations opportunity to recast the terms of political debate. Like FDR and Reagan before him, Biden came to office by repudiating his predecessor’s failure to address a national crisis while the other party continues to align itself with those failures, giving Biden great latitude to challenge the prevailing paradigm and succeed. It gives him the freedom to advance progressive policy quickly and unapologetically through Congress without letting it get watered down, followed by the chance to build lasting support for progressive governance by showing the public what undiluted progressive policies can do. Handed the opportunity to make government work, he is moving with breathtaking speed and banking on the belief that if people like the results he can move the center of American political gravity permanently to the left.
This is by no means a predetermined outcome. Moving any policy — no less historically ambitious policy — through a 50-vote Senate and an almost 50/50 House requires tremendous legislative skill and discipline. It will be months before we know if the Biden initiatives will age well, how much credit the public will give Democrats if they do, and — most significantly — whether the benefits of his economic and social policies are enough to overcome the reactionary forces unleashed during the Trump years. It will be almost two years before we have the first real electoral test of progressive government, when Democrats will ask the public to buck history and strengthen their majorities as a reward for responsive governance. So much remains unknown about Biden’s ability to permanently restructure our politics. But if you were searching for signs that the young administration may be spearheading a lasting realignment, they would look a lot like this.