Discover more from View From A Distance
Getting Stuff Done; The Politics of Success
We have short memories and tend to forget the good things but a lot got done during the past two-and-a-half years of political combat.
Payments to individuals and businesses helped get us through Covid without a recession. Inflation has tempered. The largest programs ever to transform our use of energy and build manufacturing capacity for new technologies are being implemented.
Election law was changed to prevent in the future what might have happened if Pence had gone along with Trump on January 6. Some of the problems with Obamacare were fixed. Federal protection was extended to same sex marriages. The nation avoided default when legislation lifting the debt limit passed.
How did Joe Biden, the old man from Scranton, with butchered syntax and no charisma, get most of his domestic agenda through a divided Congress? What does it take to get stuff done? What can we learn?
Most important, strategy has to start with a clear and realistic understanding of where decisions will be made and who will make them. In short, who has the power? Who gets to vote? If they are not already on board, can they be persuaded? How?
From his inauguration, Biden and his administration knew that Republican votes would be needed if anything significant was to be accomplished. There were not enough Democratic votes in an evenly divided Congress.
By actions and words Biden promoted working with Republicans. As one reporter wrote that first January, “Though there is no certainty that Biden’s first legislative proposals will attract any Republican support, his team is focused on creating space for that cooperation,”
There have been more than a few occasions when Biden has been dismissed as naïve, wasting time and energy chasing a fantasy, indulging his nostalgy for a past that no longer exists, when there was respect and cooperation between members of the two parties.
The damn-the-Republicans and go-it-by-ourselves advocates, however, didn’t count the votes. Biden and the Democratic leadership passed what they could with Democratic votes but kept the space open for cooperation when Democrat votes weren’t enough, particularly in the Senate where 60 votes are needed to shut off debate.
The space created for cooperation was enough to get a lot done. Except for the debt limit bill, not that many Republicans voted with the Democrats but there were enough. The strategy might not have worked. The votes might not have been there. But it was the only strategy that recognized the reality of where the necessary votes had to come from, if stuff was to get done.
What else is there about getting stuff done besides understanding where the votes have to come from?
Adding those votes requires inclusion, respect and conversation.
It helps if you don’t trash those you want to start a conversation with. Harsh words, a combative attitude and questioning others’ motivations and principles raises barriers difficult to tear down. Early in the administration, the White House press secretary said, “The president has been clear to all of us — words matter, tone matters and civility matters.”
That commitment to civility is the “Biden problem”, one pundit wrote. “He repeatedly yearns to turn back the clock to the good-old-boys’ days of Washington politics.” The pundit recounts with some disdain the dismissal by Biden’s chief-of-staff of a “ready-to-go attack line” proposed by a long time Democratic strategist. “That approach isn’t this president’s comfort zone. That’s not his brand.”
Others called the Biden approach ”placating” the enemy. “Mr. President, here’s a suggestion: Ditch that other old habit of yours, bending over backward to appease Republicans. … Bipartisanship — or Bidenpartisanship — ain’t happening now. Washington is not built for unity at the moment. We live in a world where everyone is unappeasable.”
“Stop trying to placate Republicans. … Good-bye to all that, buttercups. Placation of the opposition is morally suspect, but also, it doesn’t work.
As it turned out, Biden’s approach did work. What the critics didn’t understand is that agreement is not appeasement. Civility is not weakness. Negotiating doesn’t have to be an adversarial process in which one side wins and the other capitulates. Assigning every Republican the characteristics of those most aggressively doctrinaire is self-defeating.
Not every vote is needed. Just enough. The strategy for getting each vote is specific to the individual.
Starting the conversation with, “This is the problem, how do we fix it?” works better than “This is what I have decided, I need your vote.” On more than one occasion when I was in the legislature, I told my leader, “If you want me in at the end, include me at the beginning.” Respect matters.
Respect incudes understanding the concerns of the other and a willingness not to take political advantage. The sponsors of the Respect for Marriage Act postponed the vote until after the election at the request of their Republican allies, but against the wishes of some Democrats who wanted to force Republicans to take a difficult vote before the election. A vote that in some districts could be used in campaign attack ads. The sponsors, however, were more interested in success than the politics.
The Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act passed when sponsors from both parties acknowledged neither had the votes to get their own wish list of election changes passed. They then agreed it was important to fix the immediate problems exposed by Trump’s efforts to change the results of the 2020 election.
There were two additional contributions to Biden’s success. One political. One professional. First, the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were able to keep their sometimes-fractious members together and deliver their votes when it mattered. Only those who have been part of that environment can appreciate the skill and the time required.
Second, the input of members who knew the intricacies of both policy and politics. Advocacy is never enough. A compelling vision of what could be is only a start. The vision has to be captured in coherent policy. The policy translated into law and the law embodied in action.
In celebrating passage of his first stimulus package, Biden singled out two who laid the groundwork that made success possible when the time was ripe. They were Sen. Patty Murray, Chair of the Senate Health and Education Committee, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who both have been in Congress for 30 years, had proposals on their shelves and knew what it would take to get them done.
“Rosa, you and I’ve spent so much time on this. You guys — you, Patty and others — are the ones that have been leading this for so long, and it’s finally coming to fruition.”
The argument between moderates and progressives about whether bold or incremental steps lead to success becomes unimportant when one looks at the specific actions that make political effort successful. The answer, it all depends. If you have the votes to go bold, you go bold. If you don’t have the votes, you get what you can. You keep moving forward.
Every effort is different. Every issue is different. Every vote is different. The circumstances are always different. Successful strategy starts with taking account of all the facts on the ground and shapes the strategy to fit the facts. Imposing a pre-conceived strategy doesn’t get stuff done.
Biden has been criticized for not getting enough done. “He has not created a new order. … a transformation of the economy … the elimination of the filibuster and curbing of partisan gerrymandering, the addition of new states to the union, and national protection of voting rights and electoral procedures — as well as labor law reforms, enabling workers to form unions.”
He got everything he had the votes for.
It is our responsibility, if we want to get more stuff done, to get more votes in the next election.
The strategy to win any election is much the same as the strategy to win a legislative victory. Know how many votes are needed, where they are likely to come from, and have a plan to get them. There is no cookie cutter formula. Each district is different. Each candidate is different. The voters are different. The issues are different. The plan for getting stuff done changes with the specific circumstances of each contest.