2021: Reality politics vs. liberal fantasy

2021: Reality politics vs. liberal fantasy
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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 SandersSinema pushes back on criticism of her vote against minimum wage, implying that it's sexist Biden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package Schumer insists Democrats unified after chaotic coronavirus debate MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate rejects Sanders minimum wage hike Philly city council calls on Biden to 'cancel all student loan debt' in first 100 days Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case 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 SpanbergerHillicon Valley: YouTube to restore Trump's account | House-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference | Senators introduce legislation to create international tech partnerships House-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference Democrats hesitant to raise taxes amid pandemic MORE (D-Va.), a freshman who survived a close race, to veteran African American power broker, Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnHouse Democratic leaders back Shalanda Young for OMB after Tanden withdrawal Clyburn reintroduces legislation to close 'Charleston loophole' Gun violence prevention groups optimistic background check legislation can pass this Congress 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 LoefflerAdvocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee Bipartisan bill would ban lawmakers from buying, selling stocks 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 McConnellBiden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package GOP votes in unison against COVID-19 relief bill Senate approves sweeping coronavirus measure in partisan vote MORE (R-Ky.) and the Republicans.

The outlook won't be much better in the House, where Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump White House associate tied to Proud Boys before riot via cell phone data Greene sounds off on GOP after Hill story 'Bloody Sunday' to be commemorated for first time without John Lewis MORE (D-Calif.) will have a precarious less-than-five-vote margin.

To get anything done President BidenJoe BidenBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Myanmar military conducts violent night raids Confidence in coronavirus vaccines has grown with majority now saying they want it 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.