Biden is right to sidestep the culture wars
WASHINGTON — Recent events have driven home the importance of de-escalation in the context of policing. President Joe Biden is testing the theor y in the ideological realm. And upon his success depends much about the longterm health of American democracy.
Congressional Republicans would surely counter that the Biden agenda has been anything but restrained. He has, after all, spent or proposed to spend more than $4 trillion in two legislative measures that place an active federal government at the center of U.S. economic life. His stimulus package included a carpetbombing of free money and a generous, refundable child tax credit. His infrastructure plan is a bursting dam of Democratic spending proposals, many of which have minimal resemblance to infrastructure.
But when you look at the list of Biden’s chosen issues — vaccine distribution, unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, a child allowance, long-term care for the elderly and disabled, domestic manufacturing, the electrical grid, clean drinking water, high-speed broadband, electric cars, and affordable housing — these priorities are united by what they are not. They are not culture-war issues.
Debates on Biden’s agenda run in older, more comfortable ideological grooves. Big government vs. limited government. Tax increases vs. economic growth. Activism vs. obstructionism. Compassion vs. fiscal prudence.
The stakes of these debates are high but not apocalyptic. The contrast is particularly stark when compared with the controversies that led up to the Jan. 6 rebellion. . Many of his supporters believed the defeat of their favored candidate would herald the end of religious liberty and perhaps the collapse of Western civilization.
All the Democrats contending for the party’s presidential nomination last year were united in their visceral contempt for Trump. Most proposed to fight fire with fire — hoping to push along the cultural and ideological transitions that mean generational doom for the GOP. Only Biden — by background and instinct — effectively promised to fight fire with cleaner tap water.
That, of course, is an exaggeration. But a useful one. Biden is the embodied reassertion of an old Democratic belief: that the cultural politics practiced by the GOP can be countered and defeated by the deliver y of positive, material goods to middle-class families. So far as president, Biden has been remarkably consistent in this focus. It is the basis for his congressional midterm bet that a defeated pandemic and a booming economy can appeal to the suburban voters who are the key to controlling the House of Representatives.
Even now, Democrats should not underestimate how one relatively small cultural issue can crop up suddenly and dominate the discourse. Remember the contraceptive mandate on the Little Sisters of the Poor during the Obamacare debate? And Biden needs to understand that climate policy (remarkably and absurdly) has become a culture-war issue for many Republicans. GOP leaders are already attacking the infrastructure plan as a rebranded Green New Deal. The charge could easily stick.
But Biden brings certain advantages to this effort. The progressive wing of his party is giving him room to run. That is a tribute to the Biden administration’s careful consultation with the left. It might also result from genuine respect for the ambition of Biden’s proposals within the ideological boundaries he has set. Progressives may be calculating, for example, that a dramatic reduction in child poverty — which the refundable child credit would accomplish — is worth the delay of more divisive cultural battles.
And Biden is fortunate in the current quality of his opponents. The Jan. 6 revolt leaves a political and moral aftertaste that is, well, revolting. A recent Gallup poll had Democratic Party self-identification leading that of Republicans by the greatest amount since 2012. Trump’s continued domination of the party is a poisoned chalice, and GOP leaders still elbow each other for position to lick any drips off the floor.
If American politics were to become unrestricted cultural warfare between right and left, the consequences could be apocalyptic for our democracy. Biden stands in the way of that prospect. Therefore he needs to succeed.