How Democrats Can Survive Midterms

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Democrats have presumably noticed that their prospects in the November election aren’t good — but you wouldn’t know that by the way they talk to voters. President Joe Biden and his allies are proceeding as if everything is under control. The goals and the messages are pretty much the same, and the protests from the middle of the electorate are deflected or ignored.

But there is a difference between accepting defeat and inviting it. Could the Democrats improve their chances if they decided to give it a try? Maybe, but only if the administration scales back its political ambitions and aligns them more closely with what it can reasonably achieve.

This gap has been the defining characteristic of the Biden presidency. His constant theme has been the need for transformation. Every aspect of economic and social policy, according to the administration, requires radical change. Wherever you look, there is an existential crisis. Global warming. Systemic racism. Massive inequality. Trampled workers. Fraudulent consumers. Capitalism is unleashed. And all these evils are one. Constant incremental improvement will not work. America is so broken it needs to be rebuilt.

Median voters are the shy type. Although they agree that many things need attention, they are wary of revolution. They’d rather see the country fixed than reinvented — and that’s where a lot of the Democratic messaging goes off the rails. Oddly enough, most voters don’t like being told they’re allowing white supremacy. Others believe that the increase in urban crime demands a political response. People can be quite uninformed on these matters.

Even if the cautious constituency of the electorate were hungry for social transformation, they would need to trust the administration’s ability to deliver on its promises. Biden and his team do not inspire such confidence.

Instead of acknowledging that its sprawling plans lack support in Congress and adjusting its proposals accordingly, the administration continues to push — infuriating progressives and moderates alike. His handling of the pandemic and its aftermath has been erratic.

At the moment, voters are mostly concerned about inflation, which the administration has made worse with overspending in the US Bailout; he then denied the scale of the problem and shifted blame. The blunders are linked. (A Disinformation Governance Council housed in the Department of Homeland Security?) More importantly, to put it politely, the President is a less-than-convincing CEO.

All of this requires a recalibration of ends and means. Dare to think small. Low-key, simple, and direct initiatives — advancing the administration’s larger goal, able to garner sufficient support in Congress, and easily explainable to skeptical voters — should be Biden’s priority.

For example, instead of persisting with blanket tax and spending packages that voters don’t understand (and wouldn’t trust the administration to execute if they did), it would be better to combine an increase in tightly targeted tax on the wealthiest households with a targeted increase in spending for the poor. Make revenue neutral to allay concerns about its effect on the budget deficit and/or inflation. Design it with Sen. Joe Manchin, who knows some swing voters, and one or two Republican senators who might be willing to follow suit. Tell frustrated progressives that a policy aimed at tackling income inequality and helping the poor is worth supporting even if it appeals to moderates.

Here is a possibility. The most glaring flaw in the tax code is what is called the enhanced basis for assets at death. This means heirs acquire the assets at their current market value, erasing years of capital gains for tax purposes – a huge plus for wealthier families. Once or twice the administration has proposed abolishing this treatment, and the idea is included among a blizzard of other tax proposals in its recent dead-on-arrival budget.

Use the proceeds of this one-time reform, possibly in combination with a higher tax rate for very high-income households, exclusively to pay for a reformed and expanded in-work income tax credit and/or employment credit. fully refundable child tax. That way, a substantial and fully justified increase in taxes on the rich would be spent directly on reducing poverty and expanding opportunity, instead of disappearing into the unlimited cost of a whole new America.

Many Democrats might think: what a disappointment. This is precisely why their party is in such a situation. Such a measure would be good policy. No less important, it would be smart politics. It may well have enough support in Congress to pass, which would be great. But if it didn’t, the idea would be simple and compact enough for voters to pick up on and approve, leaving Democrats to use his defeat as a weapon against Republicans. Assuming, as I say, that the president and his party actually want to limit their losses in November.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• San Francisco Shows Democrats Have a Seismic Challenge: Michael R. Bloomberg

• Why there is no midterm drama on the Democratic side: Jonathan Bernstein

• Democrats could make things even worse for themselves: Ramesh Ponnuru

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering the economy. Previously, he was associate editor of The Economist and chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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