Maximalism and the perils of pandering

What are leading Democrats trying to accomplish with their current push on voting rights?  It’s far from clear. 

One approach to voting rights reform would have been to reach out quietly to Republicans and to try to negotiate a limited bill that could win bipartisan support.  Biden could express optimism that reasonable Republicans would come to the table and work something out.  If that effort failed, Democrats could have blamed Republicans.  Biden could say “I believe in bipartisanship, but unfortunately the Republican party is only interested in obstruction.” 

This would at least have the effect of educating the public about Republican obstructionism and the causes of our political dysfunction. 

Education is critical because many people naively believe that the President can accomplish any task or solve any problem if he tries hard enough.  Political scientist Brendan Nyhan labeled this the Green Lantern theory of the presidency, and it is what makes McConnell’s obstructionist tactics effective.  Republicans can obstruct and Democrats (Obama first, now Biden) get blamed.  Nice work if you can get it.

Instead of seeking compromise, Democrats have pursued maximalist legislation that has predictably failed.  News coverage makes it seem that the failure is the Democrats’ fault, because the source of conflict and delay is a handful of recalcitrant Democratic senators rather than the entire Republican Senate caucus.  In fact, Biden has openly accepted responsibility for the failure:

“Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we come back and try it a second time,” Mr. Biden said after emerging empty-handed from his session with Senate Democrats. “We missed this time.”

If Democrats had explicitly trimmed their sails and sought bipartisan legislation, at least the cause of the gridlock would have been a bit clearer.

All of this applies to the Democrats’ Build Back Better strategy as well.

So what gives?  The most plausible explanation is that Democrats are pandering to naïve Green Lanternism in their base.  Schumer is up for re-election and presumably wants to avoid being primaried from the left. 

The problem with this pandering is that voters never get told the truth, and the country does not get even half a loaf on voting reform and climate and safety net spending.  In addition, marginal voters who get told “this legislation is urgent and we will pass it” end up with inflated expectations that then get disappointed.  They end up demoralized rather than grimly committed to a long, hard fight to preserve democracy and accomplish other important goals.