The president’s party nearly always loses congressional seats in midterm elections, and so Democrats must buck history to hold back an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party. Thus, it is only a little melodramatic to call the time between now and November 8 the last chance to save American democracy.
Congress, specifically the Senate, is hopeless. That puts the onus on an unlikely pivotal figure, Joe Biden. He sold himself to the electorate as a career-long compromiser, a safe, predictable moderate as antidote to the daily insanity of the Trump Show. Now, rather than simply avoiding mistakes and keeping the Oval Office chair warm, Biden is the last line of defense. Having begun his presidency with the American Rescue Plan, the only way to keep the lackluster Democratic Congress in power beyond 2022 will be for their man in the White House to come up with an ambitious plan to prevent disaster.
The contradiction at the heart of the mainstream Democratic game plan—play it safe and campaign to moderates—is that even proponents of this strategy emphasize that we stand on the precipice of a democratic crisis. If that is true, everything must be on the table. The looming danger argues for going bigger—not letting the historical trend play out and scolding nonvoters after the fact.
Biden’s approval rating has plummeted among younger voters more than among any other group. Sanctimonious lectures about the obligation to Vote Blue No Matter Who seem unlikely to motivate young people to the polls. Retreating into a Schumer-style fantasy that every younger, more progressive voter alienated during the past 14 months will be replaced by two sensible moderates deeply impressed by the work the Democratic Congress has done is admitting defeat by another name.
Democratic consultants will be the first to remind you that younger voters are unreliable. Winning strategies premised on boosting youth turnout are risky. Yet they and other disaffected constituencies may be Democrats’ last hope, and a logical place to look given Biden’s solid support among the oldest part of the electorate. Lottery tickets have long odds, but if you need to come up with a million bucks overnight, a lotto ticket is your best bet.
While the Biden administration has some victories to point to during the upcoming campaign season, passing the Postal Service Reform Act isn’t going to cut it among voters who feel like campaign promises have not been kept or have been hedged on in that way voters have lamentably come to expect from Democrats. Bearing in mind that Congress can’t be relied upon to tie its own shoes at this point, here’s what an “October Surprise”aimed at people not already fully committed to voting for Democrats in November could look like.
- Federally reschedule marijuana and expunge federal marijuana-related convictions. Pitch it to timid moderates as boosting tax revenue and freeing up police resources to deal with serious crimes, if you must. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service conservatively concluded that “the President cannot directly remove marijuana from control under federal controlled substances law, [but] he might order executive agencies to consider either altering the scheduling of marijuana or changing their enforcement approach.” Surely all the Ivy League brainpower that makes up modern Democratic administrations can construct a plausible case for doing even more than the CRS is willing to advise. This is low-hanging fruit; the House has passed a bill along these lines. Yet Biden remains coy. Younger voters and communities most directly affected by the woefully unequal ways “justice” is doled out in this country are overwhelmingly opposed to our antiquated federal drug laws. Democrats have no path to victory without those votes. This doesn’t even rise to the standard of a tough choice; it’s an easy call, and long overdue.
- Redefine poverty. No, don’t juke the numbers to make poverty look rarer, like Trump did; change the woefully outdated standard that defines poverty. Currently, the threshold for poverty for a two-person household is a ludicrously low $18,231. With updated and vastly more realistic numbers, more people would qualify for aid programs already in place. Biden could enact a kind of social safety net expansion by fiat. The usual “How will we pay for it?” and “Handouts!” crowds will react predictably, but low-income voters would notice too. How many people primed to shriek about handouts are Democrats realistically going to get with status quo policies anyway?
- Keep pushing with the National Labor Relations Board. The recent organizing success in the service industry signals the direction of the wind among the younger, mostly non-college-educated voters we’ve heard so very much about Democrats’ struggling to woo. The NLRB just recently called for an end to employer-mandated anti-union sessions. Keep going. Do more than give Amazon warehouse workers a pat on the back for their organizing efforts. Redefine the Reagan-era Meyers Industries standard of “concerted activities” that gives workers the right under the National Labor Relations Act to “engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Interpretations of this vague phrase were narrowed to employers’ advantage in 2019; the current administration has the same powers today that the Trump NLRB had then. Close the numerous and embarrassingly obvious loopholes in Duty to Bargain, the fundamental concept that gives workers input into decisions made on their behalf by an employer. Currently, management can shutter a workplace and relocate it by fiat simply by claiming that work at the new location “varies significantly from the work performed at the former plant.” Upsetting the Chamber of Commerce by revising employer wish-list fodder like that is a risk worth taking today. Anti-labor sentiment exists in the electorate, but how many voters for whom that is a deal-breaker are not already voting Republican?
- Act on student debt. You’re tired of hearing it. You’ve heard all the arguments. A president staring down a 34 percent youth approval rating needs to suck it up and do it already. We are creeping toward de facto loan forgiveness anyway with the repeatedly extended deadlines for restarting federal student loan repayment. Even the person Trump put in charge of the issue calls for loan forgiveness, admitting that the overwhelming majority of student debt is never, ever being repaid and serves only to burden and discipline borrowers. And even the noted Marxist-Leninists at… Forbes note that Biden not only has the power to do this unilaterally but there are multiple ways he could do it. A choice between standing before young voters cajoling “C’mon, vote, man!” and “Look at what I just did for you, like I promised… Now it’s on you,” is no choice at all.
This isn’t guaranteed to work. But the strategy in which the threat is enormous and the response is timid is—historically, even logically—bound to fail. If the stakes are as high as we are regularly told, leaving bold options on the table makes no sense. If there is no later, the question unavoidably arises: If not now, when?