The July 4th weekend (or thereabouts) seems like an appropriate time to revisit the question of how much we have done to protect a republic left in tatters by the Trump years and under threat from a sizeable minority of the country willing to use extra-constitutional means to stay in power. After the lawlessness of the past administration culminated in an insurrection designed to overrule Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory, it became impossible to ignore the dangers facing democracy. Persistent but slow-moving generational change is pressuring the political system, making it harder for Republicans to win elections as a young, multicultural and generally progressive coalition grows in size and influence. Instead of retrenching to appeal to that emerging majority, Republicans under the influence of Donald Trump have decided to resist. As their situation becomes more desperate their means become more extreme, as the insurrection attests.
There is no reason to believe this will change if left unchecked. If democracy is to have a chance, it falls to the Biden administration and congressional Democrats to do what they can to protect it. Back in April, I published what I call a democracy checklist—a set of six significant steps Biden needs to take to increase the odds of surviving this precarious moment: facilitate a return to normal life; share wealth more broadly; reform the filibuster; undo efforts to make voting difficult; broadly restore voting rights; and reform the courts. Each item poses an immense political challenge to the administration, and the obstacles to success only increase as you advance through the list. Paper-thin congressional majorities rarely support bold and decisive action, but that is what the administration has to work with. Almost six months into the Biden era, let’s see how they’re doing.
1. Return life to normal.The premise here is that the preeminent reason Biden was elected was to tame the pandemic, and succeeding is a prerequisite to building the political capital he’ll need to achieve other objectives on this list and the political good will necessary for Democrats to hold on to their majorities long enough for Republicans to work through their anti-democratic impulses. Biden has appropriately made this job one and he has a lot to show for his efforts. He inherited a broken vaccination distribution program and moved rapidly to make sure everyone who wanted a vaccine could get one. He doubled his initial goal of 100,000,000 vaccinations in his first hundred days and came close to the goal of having at least one shot in the arms of seven of every ten Americans by this past weekend. Despite the odds against it, he quickly shepherded a massive Covid relief bill through Congress. But he has also run into fallout from the politicization of the pandemic, which kept him from making July 4th a joyful declaration of independence from the virus, as he had hoped and perhaps expected he could. Large pockets of resistance to vaccinations, falling largely along political lines, are leaving both states and neighborhoods vulnerable to the Delta strain of Covid-19. States with below-average vaccination rates are averaging three times the number of new cases as states with above-average vaccination rates, threatening to prolong the pandemic in red regions and increasing the risk of new mutations that could challenge the protection afforded by vaccines.
Still, among the vaccinated, things are far more normal today than they have been since the pandemic began. People are gathering with friends and neighbors, going to restaurants and ballgames, and setting aside masks and social distancing requirements. While the pandemic remains prominently in the background, talk of returning to normal—and what we want normal to look like—is happening in real time rather than in wistful speculation. Biden and the Democratic Party are taking credit for this, and it’s smart politics. It’s also largely deserved. Although the danger of backsliding is real, Biden’s swift and effective executive and legislative actions give him the standing to address his next set of impossible challenges with a degree of authority, and give Democrats an affirmative message they can run on next year. GRADE: A
2. Share the Wealth. The American Rescue Plan was a political statement as much as a policy achievement. Designed to provide Covid relief to individuals and assist a battered economy, the $1.9 trillion measure marked a dramatic departure from the austerity-minded economic policies that prevailed during the Reaganomics era, complete with direct cash payments to individuals, expansion of the child tax credit, and funding for education, healthcare, housing and transportation, with a few corporate tax increases thrown in to pay for some of it. This was a clear statement that Biden wants to redirect taxing and spending priorities to benefit the poor and middle class.
If the Covid Relief package was a big down payment on Biden’s commitment to redirect economic priorities, his massive infrastructure package has the potential to codify these priorities and bring dramatic lasting change to the country. Of course, this also makes it a more difficult political lift. Congress may (or may not) have taken a step forward by agreeing to a bipartisan measure which falls far short of the scope and intent of the administration’s proposals, but which also may (or may not) pave the way for a much more ambitious Democrats-only bill that can only happen if it has the blessing of Joe Manchin, who was insisting on bipartisanship as a condition of his support. The details of the larger package need to be worked out, and Republican leadership has not endorsed the bipartisan proposal, so there are numerous ways things can fall apart. The process is predictably taking longer than Democrats had hoped. But momentum matters a lot in Congress, and right now momentum is on the side of passing a bill. Couple this with the administration’s stated determination to go big and the possibility exists for the Biden presidency to be transformational. GRADE: B
3. Reform the Filibuster. This is where things start to get bogged down. Earlier in the year, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was saying everything was on the table when it comes to how his caucus would handle Republican determination to obstruct their agenda. Since then, it has become apparent that reforming the filibuster will be as difficult as it is essential. Unlike the infrastructure measure, which can be moved through the reconciliation process, none of the remaining items on this list will happen unless filibuster rules are modified. If there is any hope for passage of voting rights legislation, it will have to happen with fifty senate votes. Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are the most vocal opponents, consistently refusing to back off their stated opposition to a rules change, although in a leaked private conversation with lobbyists, Manchin did admit to being open to a talking filibuster. I have long contended that if you are already in the neighborhood of 48 votes, good leadership can get you to 50. At some point, Biden will have to flash his legislative expertise if filibuster reform is going to get done, and as summer approaches time is starting to run out. GRADE: D
4. Restore Voting Rights—Part I. Last week, the Supreme Court gutted what was left of the Voting Rights Act, making it more difficult to challenge the aggressive actions of Republican-controlled state legislatures to suppress the vote of Democratic constituencies. This underscored the need for the Senate to pass the For the People Act. But the measure was stalled by a Republican filibuster, and with Congress preoccupied with the infrastructure plan, it will be challenging to revisit it this summer—especially given the limited number of days Congress will be in session through Labor Day. This is, to put it mildly, highly problematic. Manchin, again one of the holdouts, has come around to support what could be a highly effective scaled-down version of the measure, but has not said he would be willing to modify the filibuster to get it through the Senate with 50 votes. Voting rights groups have promised a summer of activism, and that has made a difference before, but it won’t be brought back to the floor unless and until leadership can line up the fifty votes needed to revise the filibuster. It would behoove Senate leadership to cancel part of the August recess, at least to telegraph it understands the urgency of the moment. GRADE: F
5. Restore Voting Rights—Part II. A companion to the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore provisions of the Voting Rights Act that the Court had already neutralized prior to last week. Progress on this front will most likely follow progress on the For the People Act, which is to say it too depends on what happens with the filibuster. At this point it remains in a holding pattern. GRADE: Incomplete
6. Reform the Courts. As I wrote in April, court reform is needed to address the institutional damage that is constraining democratic institutions from serving democratic objectives. Biden followed through on his campaign promise to establish a bipartisan commission to look into the matter, but it will be months before it reports back and even longer before Congress will entertain any recommendations it might make. Dramatic proposals like placing term limits on Supreme Court justices or expanding the size of the bench are nonstarters given the current political alignment, and would require Democrats to pick up seats in 2022. Let’s put this one on indefinite hold.
Collectively, this amounts to a largely positive start to what I’ll call the agenda for preserving democracy, with a set of remarkable achievements for the administration despite its narrow congressional margins. Biden inherited a moment of profound crisis, and it is in such moments that the political system can be moved past its usual limits. But he doesn’t get extra points for effort. Biden is going to have to continue to get results, and that means succeeding where the odds are very slim. A key rationale for his presidency was that his deep ties to Congress and his understanding of the legislature would enable him to accomplish the enormous tasks the moment requires. Biden has proved this to be the case in the early months of his tenure. However, he still has far to go, and the window for dramatic results will soon start to close.