2021: Reality politics vs. liberal fantasy

2021: Reality politics vs. liberal fantasy
© Getty Images

Most everyone knew: A landslide Democratic victory in the presidential election — accompanied by huge congressional majorities — would embolden the party’s vocal left wing to demand big stuff, claiming “mandate” support.

It wasn't to be.

The election results — with the composition of the new Congress — should have quieted demands from the left.


It hasn't.

“We won this election for Joe Biden,” claims Nikayla Jefferson of the Sunrise movement, advocates for radical action on climate change. “He definitely owes his administration to us.”

He doesn't.

Activists didn't elect Joe Biden.

He won comfortably by 4.5 percent and by more than 7 million votes. He did this by running strongly with independents, self-styled political moderates and suburbanites. 

The left versus mainstream progressives fight should have been settled in the primaries. Biden opposed a single payer health care system, the expansive Green New Deal, banning fracking and de-funding the police. He soundly defeated Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Manchin fires warning shot on plan to expand Medicare Democrats steamroll toward showdown on House floor MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Warren11 senators urge House to pass .5T package before infrastructure bill Senate Democrats seeking information from SPACs, questioning 'misaligned incentives' UN secretary-general blasts space tourism MORE (D-Mass.), torch bearers of the left.


The Democratic left, post-election, point to new allies, especially in the House: several from New York City as well as Missouri's Cori Bush. They won, however, in overwhelmingly Democratic districts.

More instructive is Kara Eastman, who came close to winning a pretty liberal district in Omaha last time and was thought to have a good shot in 2020. She checked all the left-wing boxes, Medicare-for-All, Green New Deal. But she was defeated by a Republican incumbent by four and half points, while Biden was carrying the district by six and half. An 11-point differential is considerable.

The Democrats’ dismal showing in congressional contests — losing, instead of gaining, ten seats in the House and losing every competitive Senate race — is attributable to several factors, including Trump's ability to turn out a committed base. But Republicans also were able to tar Democrats for wanting to defund the police, take away private health insurance and enact socialistic policies.

This, in most cases, was false. But incumbent Democrats — from Virginia moderate Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerKatie Hill launches effort to protect Democratic majority in House GOP ramps up pressure on vulnerable Democrats in spending fight Conservative group targets Spanberger, Luria in new ads ahead of reconciliation bill MORE (D-Va.), a freshman who survived a close race, to veteran African American power broker, Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnDemocratic leaders racing toward Monday infrastructure vote This week: Democrats face mounting headaches Clyburn on spending bill: 'I feel very comfortable that we're gonna get there' MORE, of South Carolina — are voicing deep concerns that this rap is costly.

If you doubt this, watch last week's Georgia debate which may decide control of the Senate. Republican incumbent Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerWarnock picks up major abortion rights group's endorsement in reelection bid Trump endorses Hershel Walker for Georgia Senate seat Herschel Walker's entrance shakes up Georgia Senate race MORE, perhaps the most robotically programmed candidate I've ever seen, repeatedly accused her opponent of wanting to defund the police and push for a government run health care plan. It's not true, but Republican polls clearly show that Democrats have a perception problem on these issues.

The real problem, the Democratic left has insisted, is a failure to embrace bold — even radical — measures that would energize and turn out millions of new voters.

Biden won more than 80 million votes — a record. Exit polls showed that was fueled by strong showings from moderates. Overall, it was the largest presidential election turnout since 1900.

It's pretty hard to top that.

Given the results — and the composition of the next Congress — why does anyone think Biden could push even a semi-radical agenda? Look at the numbers. The Senate will either be evenly divided — including a couple fairly conservative Democrats — or controlled by Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse passes standalone bill to provide B for Israel's Iron Dome Pelosi vows to avert government shutdown McConnell calls Trump a 'fading brand' in Woodward-Costa book MORE (R-Ky.) and the Republicans.

The outlook won't be much better in the House, where Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Democrats steamroll toward showdown on House floor Panic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda MORE (D-Calif.) will have a precarious less-than-five-vote margin.

To get anything done President BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE will have to compromise, move right.

That's not an ideological choice: It's a mathematical one.

For at least two years there won't be the votes for anything that the “movement left” wants.

One big achievement that might be possible would be infrastructure, an area where Trump dropped the ball. It's desperately needed, a good long term economic and jobs investment, supported by much of the business and labor communities, and even some Republicans.

There is no one who understands both the substance and the politics of this issue and could more skillfully put together a coalition — even in this polarized environment — than Rahm Emanuel, a former House leader, White House chief of staff and two term mayor of Chicago. He would be the perfect Transportation Secretary.

But the left is vetoing him.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.