There’s been a lot of grumbling and finger-pointing among Democrats in the wake of the loss of the Virginia governor’s race and a razor-thin win in New Jersey’s gubernatorial contest.
But, no one offered a more cutting – and honest – assessment of exactly what happened than Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger in an interview with The New York Times.
“Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos,” said Spanberger, who represents a district that Biden won by a single point in 2020.
Which, wow. But also seemingly accurate in the wake of the considerable election losses – Democrats lost all three statewide offices in Virginia, the state Senate president in New Jersey is currently trailing, Democrats were blown out in local Long Island races – that the party suffered on Tuesday.
There’s absolutely no question that since coming into office, Biden has pursued a radical agenda – in the sense that his proposed spending would represent a major reentry of the federal government into the lives of the average American.
- Congress passed – and Biden signed into law – the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
- The Senate passed – and the House is debating – a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal that would fund much-needed repairs and updates on roads and bridges (and the like).
- Senate and House Democrats are considering a social safety net bill with an estimated price tag of $1.75 billion.
Total it up and you get almost $5 trillion in additional government spending in the first year of Biden’s first term, to be disbursed over a decade.
That’s a stunning reversal from the mid-1990s when Bill Clinton premised his 1996 reelection campaign on the idea that “the era of big government is over.”
The Biden view of the 2020 election was that the country was at a crisis moment – created by the twin cataclysms of Donald Trump’s presidency and a once-in-a-century pandemic – and that he was elected to lead it through to the other side.
“Few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now,” Biden said in his inauguration address, adding: “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”
Biden repeatedly returned to that theme of “unity” in that speech. But, the political realities facing him made the ideal always far-fetched.
Unlike, to draw on Spanberger’s comparison, FDR, Biden was not and is not governing with considerable Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. (During the mid-1930s, as FDR was passing much of his New Deal agenda, Democrats controlled well more than 300 House seats and as many as 76(!) Senate seats.)
Democrats currently have a eight-seat majority in the House. In the Senate, things are even narrower, with 48 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the party. It’s only Vice President Kamala Harris, in her role as the president of the Senate – and tie-breaking vote – that gives Democrats the majority.
What Spanberger is suggesting is that Biden tried to govern like FDR – massive government spending on huge social programs – without FDR majorities or an FDR mandate from the public.
Her belief is that Biden was NOT, in fact, elected to fundamentally reshape the country and the relationship its average citizen has (or wants) with the government. That he was actually elected to be a steady hand on the tiller – in the wake of the Trump chaos – and to steer the country, from a public health and economic perspective, back to some semblance of normal.
That is a far more narrow read on Biden’s mandate than the President and his White House have concluded from the 2020 election.
But, judging from the disastrous results at the ballot box on Tuesday, Biden might do better to go smaller rather than bigger on his proposals over the next year.