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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Between hope and reality

by John Brummett | May 2, 2021 at 8:45 a.m.

This is the story of conflicting views between two old-man Democrats, one cranky and realistic, and the other buoyantly optimistic and hopeful.

Perhaps few will be surprised to learn that I lean to the cranky realist.

James Carville is that cranky realist. Joe Biden is the hopeful and buoyant optimist.

They don't disagree on issues that I can see. That's not the point.

They disagree on what you should say about those issues. They differ tactically on the pace at which you advance them.

On Tuesday, Carville gave an interview to Vox.com in which he said a lot, including: "The Democratic Party can't be more liberal than Sen. Joe Manchin. ... We don't have the votes."

Then, on Wednesday evening, Biden gave a speech to Congress that was no less liberal on economic policy than Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Biden advocated the Sanders agenda of free community college, a $15-an-hour minimum wage and heavy new government spending for universal pre-K, child care and family leave. He said the moment was right to emerge from the pandemic with an explosion of new thinking and energy.

The aforementioned Manchin, the moderate senator from the Arkansas-caliber Trump state of West Virginia, and thus the unlikely 50th vote by which Democrats "control" the U.S. Senate, sat toward the back of the House chamber and took notes.

He'd been working with center-inclined Republican senators on a trimmed-down infrastructure bill. He had acknowledged earlier in the day that he couldn't say that he was altogether pleased with what he was hearing about what Biden might say.

He said after the speech only that he'd have to look at all those specific proposals, which was a standard political euphemism really meaning, "What the hell?"

Former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, a center-right Democrat, once told me that he longed for a Democratic presidential nominee post-Clinton he could confidently bring into his south Arkansas district. There wasn't one. Ross is gone from politics now. South Arkansas is now Trumpland.

Manchin is Ross in that scenario.

Carville recognizes the reality of the voters' split decision in November, which:

• Rejected Donald Trump personally more than on policy.

• Couldn't make up its mind about the U.S. Senate and thus produced a tie that goes to the party with the vice president, largely by two narrow and unlikely Democratic wins in overtime in Georgia based equally on a raging aversion to Trump's behavior and a major voter drive to register and turn out new Democrats, a gain now suppressed by new Republican voter laws.

• Rejected Nancy Pelosi liberalism by reducing her advantage in the House.

Beholding those mixed signals, I wrote in November that Biden had been elected with a simple mandate to behave better than Trump and otherwise do as little as possible other than manage us out of the pandemic.

On Wednesday evening, Biden presumed quite the opposite to be FDR beckoning the nation to join him in a bold New Deal march out of a depression.

There was one overlap in Biden's new buoyance and Carville's tactical reality.

Carville says Democrats must talk to people more clearly on popular economic issues and stay away from higher-academia's off-putting cultural esoterica. He says Democrats have been so inept on messaging that they manage to sustain more damage from a smart leftist in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Republicans incur from a crazed right-wing extremist in Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Biden was quite to the point and clear and mostly economic on Wednesday night.

But, even there, Carville says Democrats must hammer relentlessly on Republican complicity in the scruffy insurrection of Jan. 6, while Biden chose Wednesday evening to talk about moving past that horror together.

Two factors seem to be at play. One is that Biden is a natural optimist embracing policy and Carville a natural fact-facer embracing election victories. The other is that Democrats have a post-Carville generation of political advisers who say it's time to move past Carville's Bill Clinton conciliation (and naïve Barack Obama overture to Republicans).

The new Democratic advice seems to be that there is as much potential political capital in seizing the moment on Sanders-like economic policy (and subjugating perilous culture-war issues) as in pacing slowly to try to grow a numerical advantage so that the moment can be seized more credibly later.

There will be an answer. We'll learn it the day after the midterms in November 2022.

At that point, will Democrats have passed Biden's agenda of Wednesday evening in the 50-50, Manchin-hinging Senate? I seriously doubt it.

Will the Democrats have held control of the Senate? That'll probably turn on Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia, with open seats in two and an instant replay in Georgia.

Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia--have we not heard those states before?

For all the inaugural talk of bipartisanship, are we not right where we were before--Republicans still wedded to Trump and Democrats still gummed up in buoyant hope and cranky reality?


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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