Opinion

It's the virus, stupid

Why the Democrats should pivot to COVID

What a difference a season makes.

At the beginning of the summer, the Democrats could congratulate themselves on a significant legislative accomplishment in the COVID-19 relief bill, which many saw as a downpayment on a revitalized welfare state, and could credit that bill in part for the roaring recovery. Now, Biden's poll numbers are under water and still sinking. It looks entirely plausible that even the broadly-popular bipartisan infrastructure bill will not pass. And on the key issues of the day the Democrats appear to be paralyzed and falling into mutual recrimination. What happened to the promise of a transformational presidency?

The answer is not that the progressives can't abide compromise, nor that the moderates lack the courage of their convictions. The Democrats really have gotten caught in a Catch-22 on many key issues, where moving left, or right, or standing still are all perilous courses.

On the budget, for example, it's true that many of its components poll well individually, but the whole is less popular than the sum of its parts precisely because it is an omnibus bill: the number of people who support everything in the bill is inevitably going to be less than the number who support any particular thing. But that also means you can't trim the bill without either jettisoning some group's top priority (and losing their support) or making everyone feel somewhat stiffed and failing to attract new support. That may be why moderates have mostly tried to kick the can down the road. If that leads to nothing being passed, though, then Democrats have nothing to run on in 2022. None of the viable options — getting on board with the whole bill, proposing an alternative, or doing nothing — is likely to make the median voter more enthusiastic about the party in power. That's why it's a Catch-22.

The same is true for the other high-profile political issue of the moment: immigration. Biden is enforcing the law with stepped-up deportations, and facing a storm of criticism from the left over images of Haitians being rounded up by whip-wielding men on horseback. But if he's planning on using enforcement as a foundation for passing pro-immigration legislation through Congress, he's making the same mistake Obama did, as my colleague James Antle III astutely notes. Stepped-up enforcement not only didn't pave the way for a more liberal law, it was followed by a restrictionist takeover of the GOP. Meanwhile, reversing course wouldn't be good for Democrats. It would only show that they're incapable of governing while increasing the salience of border enforcement in the coming election — a boon to Republicans. It's once again a Catch-22: deportations won't actually help the Democrats, because they can't outbid Republicans on the issue, but stopping them won't help them either.

So how did they get to this impasse? And what should the Democrats do to get out of it? The usual political advice given when an issue is bad for you is to change the subject to one that matters more and where you have a natural advantage. Fortunately, such an issue exists. Unfortunately, it's precisely the issue that the Democrats were hoping to claim an early victory on and then pivot triumphantly away from.

That problem is COVID.

In the latest polling from Gallup from the end of August, fully 26 percent of Americans cited the pandemic as the most important issue facing the country. That's more than three times the number who cited the economy in general as the top issue, and nearly 50 percent more than cited any economic issue, like unemployment or inflation. It's also more than twice the number that cited immigration. Indeed, it's more than the number who cited racism, the environment, crime, poverty, homelessness, family values, electoral integrity, health care, education and guns put together. And the second-place choice for biggest problem — poor leadership — is inevitably bound up with frustration at the government's failures, at all levels, in this most crucial fight.

That 26 percent number is also more than double the percentage that cited the pandemic as the top problem only a month before — and tracking that change helps clarify how the Democrats got themselves into their current bind in the first place. The spring tranche of COVID relief passed relatively easily despite its high price tag because it fit with their original strategy: tide everyone over until the pandemic is defeated, watch the economy come roaring back in the summer, and then ride a tide of popularity and flush wallets to make progress on climate change and the caring economy. In a nutshell, the plan was: Defeat COVID first, then build back better.

That's not what happened. Instead of the economy, it's the virus that came roaring back, leaving us in what feels like an extended twilight of anxiety and agitation. Now the Democrats find themselves trying to change the subject to other longstanding priorities, while the issue that likely got them elected in the first place remains both unresolved and front and center in voters' minds.

To regain the political initiative, the Democrats have to pivot back to COVID. President Biden has tried to do that by calling for a wider implementation of vaccine mandates among other things. But he's frequently stumbled, most notably in the confusing and contradictory rollout of a plan for booster shots. And there are plenty of areas where the administration's response has been almost inert. The United States still lacks the kind of cheap rapid COVID testing that is widely available in other countries — even though the kits are sometimes manufactured in the U.S.A. The obstacles have always been entirely bureaucratic rather than technological, and the fact that they're still in place nine months after Biden's inauguration is a testament to the fact that the administration came into office thinking the war on COVID was largely won.

Politically, there is no substitute for victory. Victory, though, also needs to be more clearly defined. COVID is not going to be eradicated; it's going to become endemic. That doesn't mean we should be fatalistic; on the contrary, fatalism will just lead to excess fatalities. It means we have to take the aggressive steps necessary to make it possible to live with the disease without mass death, including getting more adults vaccinated and making cheap tests widely available to help keep COVID out of the most vulnerable populations and situations. But it also means pushing back against the pervasive anxiety that so many who do take the virus seriously are prone to and that could hamper a return to a full and normal life.

COVID is actually an issue tailor-made for the vigorous centrism that Biden has often personified — it is, first and foremost, a test of whether government can be nimble and effective in working for the common good. Winning the war against COVID, though, will require actual vigor. And without a vigorous effort now, the Democrats will lack the political capital necessary to move their other initiatives forward.

Only once they have won the trust of those elusive median voters on this paramount issue will they be able to ask for trust in other areas, and for the political support necessary to show just how much more the government can do.

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