Monday, May 16, 2022

Can Executive Actions Save Democrats in the Meantime?

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Shreya Christina
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In recent weeks, progressives have issued a dire warning to Democrats. If President Joe Biden doesn’t try to get more done through executive measures, they say voters won’t show up because they’ll feel the party hasn’t performed for them.

“If the president decides and starts to rule using executive measures and other tools at his disposal, I think we’re in the game,” Representative Alexandria said. Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told New York magazine in an interview this week. “But if we decide to just sit back for the rest of the year and not change people’s lives — yeah, I think we’re in trouble.”

In March, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) hosted revealed a list of 55 executive actions they recommended that Biden take it, including canceling student debt, changing overtime rules to allow more employees to take it, and lowering the prices of prescription drugs.

When it comes to mobilization, progressives are right. Democrats must do more to revive their grassroots after the party failed to pass the comprehensive social spending and voting rights protection legislation they promised to promote in 2020.

Given their slim majority in the Senate and the deadlock they’ve experienced there, it’s possible that executive action is the only avenue Democrats now have for certain policy changes.

However, it is unclear whether the executive measures will be sufficient to contain their overall losses in the medium term.

Typically, there is significant backlash against the president’s party during midterm elections, a dynamic likely to be exacerbated this year by Biden’s poor approval ratings. Historical trends have also indicated that adopting new policies has marginal effects on midterm elections — and could even lead to backlash. Instead, factors such as the economy, inflation and the state of the pandemic are likely to play a much larger role in how voters judge the party in power.

“It’s possible that this could have some impact on voting choices during the midterm elections, but the impact will be in the margins,” said Brown University political scientist Eric Patashnik. “The president’s party almost always loses in midterm elections, and Biden’s executive actions are unlikely to change that.”

That’s not to say that executive actions aren’t worth pursuing or that they won’t have an impact. It’s just that any electoral gains they bring will likely be outweighed by other headwinds that Democrats are already dealing with.

Executive actions can power the base

Executive action on important issues may help mobilize a certain segment of Democratic voters.

“I think young people are not excited to go to the polls to vote on broken promises,” said Sunrise Movement spokesman John Paul Mejia. “Right now, young people are craving a party to believe in.”

In the past year, Democrats have struggled to move some of their biggest priorities forward. While they have been able to deliver strong stimulus through the US bailout, as well as major investments in roads, bridges and water pipes through the bipartisan infrastructure bill, they have been unable to pass key climate policies or voting rights legislation due to divisions within the party.

Voters’ disappointment has been evident in the polls. Since last SeptemberBiden’s approval rating has seen a decline among Democrats in general and major party voters, including black voters and young voters.

Executive actions could help rally many of the Democratic voters who have become disillusioned with the party’s leadership, though experts note they need to make sure these efforts don’t scare swing voters away.

“Executives historically related to the economy have the potential to drive grassroots participation from the president,” said Nicole Willcoxon of the Brookings Institution.

So far, Biden has met with the CPC to discuss the list of executive actions they’ve proposed, though the White House hasn’t announced how many it might be considering.

Policies usually have marginal effects

While executive actions may energize some Democrats, they probably aren’t enough to neutralize other challenges they face.

Most of the time, the president’s party experiences backlash during the midterm elections. In eight of the last ten midterm elections, the president’s party lost seats in the House, and in six of them it also lost seats in the Senate. Opposition to the president’s party seems to eclipse most of the benefits that policy can provide, including executive action.

Because the opposition party tends to be more excited about taking back congressional seats or controlling the executive office, its voters tend to be more energized during midterm elections.

“What happens during an interim period is that the people who are motivated to participate are people who are making losses, not gains,” said Michigan State University political scientist Matt Grossmann. “The opposition party is more excited, and that certainly matters.”

As Ron Brownstein of the Atlantic has pointed outRecent interim losses have occurred even after the passage of ambitious bills such as the Affordable Care Act and groundbreaking gun control legislation:

Bill Clinton lost 54 seats in the House in 1994 after passing a sweeping budget bill, a significant crime bill, and the most important gun control legislation Congress has ever passed. The losses were even greater in 2010 after Barack Obama passed his stimulus plan, extensive financial reform legislation, and most importantly the Affordable Care Act, extending health insurance to more uninsured than any other federal initiative since Medicare and Medicaid. Despite, or perhaps because of it all, Democrats lost 63 seats in the House in 2010, the biggest interim loss for either party in more than 70 years.

Some of those losses may stem from the fact that it takes time for people to feel the effects of a policy. For example, while the Affordable Care Act was not initially politically helpful to Democrats, it became much more so after the legislation developed a constituency over time.

Executive actions that could have the most impact on the midterm elections are actions, such as stimulus measures, that have immediate tangible benefits, Grossmann says. But even then, he believes their benefits are likely to be small.

Several of the actions suggested by CPC fall into the category that is immediately felt.

“There is a lot here that is really tangible and immediate,” said CPC spokesman Mia Jacobs. “If the president cancels student debt tomorrow, if he raises the overtime threshold and uses eviction rights to lower the price of prescription drugs, these are things that will make life easier right now and that’s what matters.”

It seems unlikely that taking these measures will change the broader trajectory of the midterm exams themselves. However, they would show Biden delivering on key campaign promises, and could excite disappointed Democratic grassroots members, something that could come in handy in tight races. Proponents of executive measures also argue that, even if they don’t help much in the end, it’s worth trying to demonstrate the value of having Democrats in power.

“Progressives think it’s really important to get caught trying and argue why democratic governance makes sense,” Jacobs says.

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