No idea is more dearly held by political activists than the notion that voters will reward elected officials who enact an ambitious policy agenda. But it’s entirely possible that what voters really want, especially in a time of political and social insecurity, is competence and stability.
Two of the most popular governors in America are Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. Neither can be said to have a signature accomplishment or celebrated failure. In both cases, a Republican with moderate affect narrowly won a governor’s race in a huge Republican wave year and then spent four years mostly checking the excesses of a Democratic legislature. For their trouble, they both won with landslide victories.
Conversely, Kansas has a Democratic governor because the state’s Republican Party decided to enact supply-side economics. It was an unpopular disaster, and led to a backlash in an extremely red state. Something similar happened in Vermont in 2016, when Gov. Peter Shumlin made an ambitious push for single-payer health care. The legislature suffered sticker shock over the price tag, and a Republican got elected basically on a promise to not rock the boat too much. He then cruised to reelection and remains popular based on his competent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Americans are just more complacent than activists on either side of the aisle want to believe.
Are parents mad about “woke” teachers injecting critical race theory into the classroom? Some of them, probably. But 73% of parents say they are satisfied with the education their children are receiving.
Or consider the U.S. health care system, which virtually every analyst on both the left and right says is wracked by huge irrationalities and inefficiencies. Most people are satisfied with the health insurance they have — whether from the public or private sector. Famously, a single national health insurance system polls very well until people learn it would involve eliminating private insurance or shifting health cost payments into the tax system. Indeed, Americans aren’t even that bothered about the amount of taxes they pay — though woe betide anyone who tries to raise taxes on the middle class.
The mistake activists make is confusing an inchoate sense of public anger at the system with a desire for sweeping policy change. In reality, it probably goes the other way: Amid mass disillusionment with politics, voters are suspicious and fearful of change.
It’s not a coincidence that the worst poll numbers of Donald Trump’s presidency came when media attention was focused on his proposed changes to tax policy rather than his scandals or outlandish behavior. Nor is it a coincidence that former President Bill Clinton’s approval ratings improved enormously once Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 and he was able to position himself as standing against their efforts to cut Medicare and Medicaid.
None of this is to say that it’s never a good idea to try to change things. Creating Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 didn’t win Democrats any votes in the 1966 midterms. But once the programs are in place, they are very difficult to dislodge — and those who try get punished.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement during the debate over the Affordable Care Act fight that “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it” was widely mocked at the time, and certainly didn’t help Democrats in the 2010 midterms. But in the long run she was vindicated. Once the ACA had been in place for years, the public’s basic aversion to change made it very difficult to repeal.
Even in countries such as Canada and the U.K., with a less clunky legislative process, it’s unusual for the policy pendulum to fully swing back and forth. Margaret Thatcher didn’t dismantle the National Health Service, nor did Tony Blair renationalize industry.
Of course, people generally get into politics because they want to change things. It’s a risky pursuit, but it can also be quite rewarding. And an incumbent politician who accomplished literally nothing might have trouble cutting convincing reelection ads.
But it’s a question of scale. Clinton was widely mocked by contemporaries (and his successor Barack Obama) for dedicating so much time to school uniforms, the v-chip and so on. But people really liked Clinton. The v-chip sought to address a widespread parental concern in a minimally disruptive way. It often doesn’t take much to scratch the public’s itch that something be done.
Which brings us to the presidency of Joe Biden. During the Democratic primaries, Biden was portrayed — accurately, mostly — as the safe, boring, electable choice. (If you wanted “big structural change” or a “political revolution,” you favored another candidate). In the general election, Biden’s main message was that he would be a steady and compassionate pair of hands to guide the country through the COVID-19 pandemic.
To much of the public, Biden fundamentally fulfilled his core campaign promise the day he took the oath of office — delivering an unremarkable speech full of patriotic bromides. That’s true as far as it goes, but his campaign also had an actual policy agenda — and it was surprisingly sweeping and progressive.
Democrats’ struggles this fall reflect the tension between these two promises of the Biden campaign. One is genuinely committed to trying to deliver major policy change — above all else on climate, which progressive elites care about enormously. The main sales pitch of the other promise was that the president would no longer tweet bizarre things.
The best way forward from here is for Democrats to make their strongest case for action on the merits, but recognize the political reality: When it comes to change, less is often more.
I’m quite attached to the idea, for example, of making the newly enhanced child tax credit permanent, which would greatly reduce child poverty. But the Democrats’ proposal contains so much more than that — sliding-scale subsidies for child care, investments in preschool for three and four year-olds, a half-baked paid parental leave plan, a huge investment in at-home care services for Medicaid beneficiaries, and more generous subsidies for various Affordable Care Act programs.
These are all fine ideas, but are they really necessary if Democrats want to say they accomplished something? Each of them has its own constituency, and it would be painful for the party to break the news that it’s not going to happen. But the public simply isn’t demanding rapid advances on every policy front.
In the context of the current legislative battle, it would be better for Democrats to focus on the climate provisions, which are in many ways the motivating force for Democrats and are a distinct minority of the spending proposed in their $3.5 trillion budget package. The idea of pairing them with a few spoonfuls of sugar in the form of cheaper prescription drugs and dental and vision benefits for senior citizens makes a lot of sense. The sooner something is done, the sooner Biden can pivot to seeking the 21st-century equivalent of the v-chip.
Once you’ve got your most important idea and you most popular idea, how much more do you need?
Matthew Yglesias wrote this column for Bloomberg Opinion.