What has changed is not just the politics but the economic consensus. Recently I spoke to Jared Bernstein, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, on “The Argument,” the Times podcast I co-host. When Biden was vice president, Bernstein was his chief economic adviser, and he said the meetings he’s in now are very different from those he was in during the last economic crisis.
Back then, Bernstein said, there was a widespread fear that too much government borrowing would crowd out private borrowing, raising interest rates. That thinking, he said, has changed. As Biden told reporters this month, “Every major economist thinks we should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth.”
It’s not just that the Democratic Party has moved left — the old Reaganite consensus in the Republican Party has collapsed. There’s nothing new about Republicans ignoring deficits — deficits almost never matter to Republicans when they’re in power. What is new is the forthright rejection of laissez-faire economics among populist nationalists like Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, who joined with Sanders to demand higher stimulus payments to individuals in the last round of Covid relief.
That doesn’t mean we should be optimistic about people like Hawley, who wouldn’t even admit that Biden won the election, helping the new administration pass important legislation. But Republicans are going to have an increasingly difficult time making a coherent case against economic mercy for the beleaguered populace.
“This idea that the inflation hawks will come back — I just think they’re living in an era that has disappeared,” Elizabeth Warren told me.
However popular it is, Biden’s agenda will be possible only if Democrats find a way to legislate in the face of Republican nihilism. They’ll have to either convince moderates to finally jettison the filibuster, or pass economic legislation through reconciliation, a process that requires only a majority vote. Where Congress is stalemated, Biden will have to make aggressive use of executive orders and other types of administrative action. But he has at least the potential to be the grandfather of a more socially democratic America.
A moderate president, says Skowronek, can also be a transformative one. “It’s a mistake to think that moderation is a weakness in the politics of reconstruction,” he said, noting that both Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt were “viciously” attacked from the left. “Moderation can stand as an asset if it’s firmly grounded in a repudiation of the manifest failure and bankruptcy of the old order. In that sense, moderation is not a compromise or a middle ground. It’s the establishment of a new common sense.”
There is, of course, no guarantee that Biden will fully rise to the moment. Skowronek has always expected that eventually American politics will change so much that the patterns he identified will no longer apply. “All I can say is that so many of the elements, the constellation of elements that you would associate with a pivot point, are in place,” he said. In this national nadir, we can only hope that history repeats itself.
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