There’s a decent chance that in January 2021, Washington, D.C. will be a one-party town.
Democrats have a 72 percent chance of controlling the White House, House of Representatives and Senate, according to the Deluxe version of FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 forecast. It would be the first time they’ve had a political “trifecta” since the first two years of the Obama administration. But while that possibility has pushed some to dream big, Democratic operatives say the limitations of their party’s big-tent politics will likely determine what gets done as much as the wishes of a Biden administration.
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In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, Biden has dodged questions about a once-fringe idea for expanding the number of seats on the Supreme Court, which has let imaginations run wild. Could Democrats actually pursue structural changes on a level not seen in decades? Statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, an overhaul of the federal judiciary, a “Green New Deal” on the scale of what Franklin Roosevelt did during the Great Depression? The country is brutally divided by partisan affiliation, and there is some sense that politics has moved to a more Machiavellian plane; if you are guaranteed power for only two years, leverage it to the hilt.
Yet even court-expansion advocates seem dubious about whether Biden and a Democratic Congress would actually come out of the gate by adding judges to the highest court. The “wish list,” said Christopher Kang of Demand Justice, a liberal group that advocates for judicial reform, is led by “expanding the Supreme Court by adding four seats to offset the two seats that would have now been stolen from a Democratic president.” More likely, though, according to Kang, is that Democrats expand the broader federal judiciary and nominate judges with resumes outside the bounds of the typical white-shoe law firm pedigrees (civil rights activists and academics fill the Demand Justice shortlist). Kang suggested as many as 200 judgeships could be added, pointing out that the Judicial Conference (the policymaking body for the federal courts) has recommended the creation of 70 new judgeships to keep up with the pace of caseloads.
Democrats’ agenda will also be determined by their margin of victory in the Senate. Sen. Joe Manchin will still be in the caucus, after all. Ryan McConaghy, who worked for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, was circumspect when it came to the subject of court expansion. “That is definitely the type of thing that would take a long time and require very careful consideration of where the votes are,” he said. McConaghy, like other Democrats I spoke to, expected that a Democratic Congress’s first priority would be a stimulus package. He drew comparisons to Obama’s first term for what might happen next. “Democrats do not hold all three decision-making bodies often, so there’s going to be a real desire to have progress on a core priority. I think there’s a good chance that climate plays the role in 2021 that the ACA played in 2009 and 2010.”
As Election Day and a potential transition bears down, what seemed most on the minds of the progressives I spoke to is how a Biden White House would be staffed. There’s a worry on the left that Biden — known for hewing closely to wherever the party’s center is at any particular moment — won’t seize on a post-Trump moment to make big changes. One progressive Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of intraparty critiques during an election, told me that they were worried that recent history — the Obama administration during the financial crisis — would be a guide for how Biden might act. “Everyone was talking at the time about how Barack Obama was reading “Team of Rivals,” and he picked Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, but you look at what they did with their economic team, and it was all the Citi Group-allied, Wall Street-sympathetic cabal.” Back in January 2019, economist Paul Krugman, who lobbied the Obama administration unsuccessfully for a bigger stimulus package following the economic collapse of 2008, joked to me that “the financial industry has so much clout and so much influence, not just because of the money but because they’re smart people, they’re persuasive, they have great tailors.” There’s a sense that Biden could choose gatekeepers who aren’t open to the sorts of broad changes that the Democratic primaries put in front of voters.
Under particular scrutiny are Biden’s choices for Chief of Staff: Ron Klain, Steve Ricchetti and Bruce Reed have all served as Biden’s chief of staff at various points in time. Progressives have carved out a favorite in Klain, and the Democratic aide I spoke to said that if Biden chose Ricchetti or Reed, “It’s a major tone-setter.” In areas like government antitrust action — the Department of Justice filed suit against Google this week for antitrust violations — the aide said they weren’t optimistic about a Biden administration. “The odds that he picks people that are allied with Amazon, Google, and Facebook to run DOJ antitrust, to run the FTC — they’re pretty high,” they said. “I’m pessimistic.”
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Sean McElwee, executive director of Data For Progress, seemed hesitant to get too optimistic. “I think the big constraint for the Obama administration and not doing progressive stuff was first the deficit fearmongering,” he said. “We’re going to spend a lot of time making the case that Democrats shouldn’t allow themselves to sort of be hampered by the deficit.”
Saikat Chakrabarti, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s former chief of staff, also brought up what he saw as the misguided thinking of establishment Democrats — Biden foremost among them — on economic matters like the deficit. “I think he’s probably got some ideological hang-ups around how debt works and how deficits work and how taxes work,” Chakrabarti said. “He just needs people around him who can shake him free of those misconceptions.”
McConaghy thinks Democrats are also likely to push for the kind of reforms outlined in H.R. 1, a bill passed by the House in 2019 that proposed automatic voter registration, restoration of provisions in the Voting Rights Act and offered (non-binding) support for making Washington, D.C a state. That last item is one progressives are sure to push for. McElwee called granting D.C. statehood “morally the right thing to do.” But McConaghy said it could be tough to make a reality. “That type of thing exists in the outer ring of what the main focus will be,” he said, pointing out that the nature of the Democratic caucus is “ideologically wide and geographically diverse.” Some rural state Democrats would likely be against D.C. statehood, he said, because of a perception that it would dilute the power of their vote.
The big-tent nature of the Democratic Party is already being tested, as the Biden campaign floated the idea this week that certain Republicans could find a place in the former vice president’s cabinet.
The news was met with opprobrium from parts of the Democratic ecosystem.
“People Biden is vetting: John Kasich, Meg Whitman, Jeff Flake, Charlie Baker, Charlie Dent,” one activist tweeted.
“People Biden is not vetting: Anyone who endorsed Bernie Sanders.”