Democrats should avoid sweeping progressive policy changes

Wednesday, January 20, 2021 - 10:51am

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With the victories of Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in the Georgia Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, the Senate majority now belongs to the Democrats. Since the Democrats already control the House of Representatives and the presidency, the Democrats now have a unified government for the first time since 2011. 

Naturally, Democrats are excited about this prospect — especially having a Senate with a Democratic majority, which makes legislating far easier. They can bring bills to the Senate floor that otherwise wouldn’t have received a vote now that Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is no longer the Senate Majority Leader, and they also should have the votes to pass such legislation.

However, it’s easy for Democrats to dream of the policy that could be rather than the policy that should be. This election was a rejection of Donald Trump, not a rejection of conservatism or the traditional values of the Republican Party. By no means was it a vote for sweeping progressive policies. 

Although the Democrats maintained their majority in the House of Representatives, they lost seats, making this majority much slimmer than in the last session of Congress. The fact that Republicans gained seats in the House but lost the presidency is important because the House is the body that more closely represents individual voters. 

Voters have not abandoned conservatism or the Republican Party; they abandoned Trumpism. Individualism, limited government and republicanism are still valued by many American voters, especially those who split their ticket, voting for Joe Biden for president and for the Republican candidate for their congressional representative.

Similarly, in the Senate, the Democrats lost seats that they were expected to win, including seats occupied by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who both won their reelection campaigns. While the Democrats did successfully flip four seats, gaining a net three seats in the Senate, all of the flipped seats came from senators who were closely aligned with Trump: Martha McSally, Cory Gardner, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue all embraced Trump in their campaigns, and all lost to their Democratic challengers. In the Senate, ties to Trump in moderate or even center-right states doomed campaigns.  

The Senate, like the House, also has a small margin of dominance, the smallest possible: a 50-50 split with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker. Should the Republicans vote unanimously, a single “no” from the Democratic side would result in a “no” vote for that bill in the Senate. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., would likely vote against any progressive legislation, as he comes from a deep red state and has voted with Republicans on consequential matters before. 

Progressive legislation would harm House Democrats who represent swing districts. Because House representatives are up for election every two years, they face an electorate that remembers their specific votes, especially votes on controversial bills and issues. 

If Democrats embrace far-left policies now, it will be at their peril come 2022. Representatives from moderate districts will almost certainly face strong challenges from more conservative, that is, Republican, candidates. Additionally, party members don’t always vote with their party — already this year, five Democrats voted against reelecting U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as Speaker of the House. 

This is not to say that Democratic control of Congress isn’t a major win for the party. With McConnell out as Senate Majority Leader, the Democrats will be able to bring legislation to the floor for a vote that a Senate with McConnell would never have brought up. 

The most relevant example of this is the stimulus package, as McConnell refused to allow the Senate to vote on the Caring for Americans with Supplemental Help Act to give a $2,000 stimulus check to Americans, even though the bill was passed by the House. With a Democrat as the Majority Leader, the CASH Act will receive a vote in the Senate and will likely pass. Other actions a Democratic-controlled Senate can take are appointing liberal judges to the courts, passing legislation to fight climate change and furthering former President Barack Obama’s health care law. 

The elections of Ossoff and Warnock are, without question, excellent for the Democrats. A Democrat-controlled House, Senate and presidency allow Biden to set the policy agenda and allow Congress to execute it. But just because the Democrats have the power to execute sweeping legislative change does not mean they should use it. 

Progressives in Congress will likely endorse major policy proposals such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, but these policies cannot be considered if Democrats want to maintain their congressional majorities in 2022 and keep a Democrat in the White House in 2024.

Lydia Storella can be reached at storella@umich.edu


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