The American Rescue Plan is a bolder, more progressive, economic package than anything a Democratic president has proposed since L.B.J. But it is not, for now, a polarizing package. It’s less polarizing even than Biden, who only polls at 12 percent among Republicans. You could chalk that up to its popular component parts, but the Affordable Care Act’s individual policies were popular, too, and the bill polled at around 40 percent. You could say it’s the coronavirus crisis, but coronavirus policy is sharply polarized. I suspect Biden’s calmer approach to political communication is opening space for a bolder agenda.
What should the Biden administration prioritize?
- Oren Cass argues that the president’s (as well as Mitt Romney’s) child benefit plans go too far in providing cash without employment, and that “a program should ask recipients to do their part in supporting themselves.”
- Jamelle Bouie, Opinion columnist, writes that recent pro-Union comments raise “expectations for what Biden can and should accomplish as president on behalf of the labor movement.”
- The Editorial Board argues that as the “pandemic will not be vanquished anywhere until it is vanquished everywhere,” the president should engage in a robust “vaccine diplomacy” in addition to domestic efforts.
- Gail Collins, Opinion columnist, writes that while one can appreciate that Joe Biden is busy, there’s “absolutely no reason we shouldn’t start to nag” on new gun control measures.
A few pieces of political science research are shaping my thinking here. In 2012, Stephen Nicholson, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, published an interesting paper called “Polarizing Cues.” In it, Nicholson asked people their opinions of proposed housing and immigration policies, sometimes telling them that Barack Obama supported the policy and at other times telling them that George W. Bush or John McCain supported the policy. What he found was that opinions didn’t much change when people heard that a political leader from their own party supported a bill. But opinions changed dramatically when you told them a political leader from the other side supported a bill — it led to sharp swings against the legislation, no matter the underlying policy content.
When I called Nicholson to ask him about the paper, he gave an insightful explanation for the results. Humans tend to see diversity in the groups we belong to, and sameness in the groups we mistrust, he said. A Democrat knows there are many ways to be a Democrat — you can be a Biden Democrat, an A.O.C. Democrat, an Obama Democrat, a Bernie Democrat, a Clinton Democrat. So a signal from any one Democratic leader is weaker, because he or she may not be the leader you care about. But no matter which kind of Democrat you are, Republicans blur in your mind into an undifferentiated mass of awful, so a signal from their political leaders is stronger. The process works the other way, too, of course. A recent Gallup poll showed 88 percent of Republicans disapprove of Biden — the more Biden makes the American Rescue Plan about himself, the more they’ll hate it.
Then there’s the book “Stealth Democracy,” by the political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. They marshal a mountain of survey data to show that Americans have weak and changeable views on policy, but strong views on how politics should look and feel. Many, if not most, Americans believe “political conflict is unnecessary and an indication that something is wrong with governmental procedures,” they write. The more partisan fighting there is around a bill, in other words, the more Americans begin to believe something must be wrong with the legislation — otherwise, why would everyone be so upset?
Mitch McConnell understood all of this, and he ginned up political bickering to undermine Obama’s agenda. But Biden seems to understand it, too. When I talked to Bedingfield, she kept circling back to Biden’s preference for rhetoric and strategies that turn down “the temperature” on American politics. But Biden isn’t taking the usual Washington strategy toward that goal, which is to retreat to modest bills and quarter-measures. Instead, his theory seems to be that if you can dial down the conflict, you can dial up the policy.
I’ve argued before that Biden’s central insight in the campaign was that negative polarization — the degree to which we loathe the other side, even if we don’t much like our side — is now the most powerful force in American politics. Biden often refused to do things that would endear him to his base, because those same things would drive Republicans wild. That strategy is carrying over to his presidency. And in part because of it, the reaction to his signature legislative package, which really is a collection of policies progressives have dreamed of for years, isn’t cleaving along normal red-blue lines.
Like any other communications strategy, this will work until it doesn’t. Biden will have his failures, as all presidents do. But for now, it’s working, in defiance of the lessons many thought Trump’s presidency taught.
Speak softly and pass a big agenda. It’s at least worth a try.
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