How Biden gets his groove back
Talking to journalist and progressive advocate David Sirota about how Biden could fight for his stalled agenda, the confusion that haunts the Democratic Party, and next-generation leaders he admires
Dear Ink readers,
A few weeks ago, I submitted a draft of my new book. It was out of my hands for a week and then returned to me for revisions. I have been deeply enmeshed in that work, which I’m excited to share with you before the end of this year. So The Ink has been quieter than it usually is. But I’m excited for all that we have coming up. (And stay tuned for a revival of the video chats, based on great feedback you gave us.)
Today I have for you a thought-provoking interview with David Sirota. David is a man of diverse talents and projects. He has been a muckraking journalist, a speechwriter for Senator Bernie Sanders, a progressive pugilist on TV and Twitter, a very successful dabbler in film (as with “Don’t Look Up,” the recent blockbuster he co-wrote with Adam McKay), and the creator of a newsletter called The Daily Poster, which quickly established itself in official Washington as a fount of scoops at the nexus of money and power, illustrating the unsavory reasons why so many political dreams die.
David had a lot to say about this political moment of crisis and stasis, and some practical advice for President Biden. But before we get to that, I want to make sure you’re covered on all fronts. So if you need Saturday-night in-your-pajamas plans, stream this concert from my friend the incredible Broadway actor Jenn Colella. If you need an Omricocktail, the Oaxaca Old Fashioned is my suggestion. And if, like me, you need recipes that make you feel like a grown-up while tricking your kids into thinking you are feeding them fried tenders, this agedashi tofu may be for you.
“The fundamental question at the bottom of all politics”: a conversation with David Sirota
ANAND: In Washington, your newsletter, The Daily Poster, has become a real fixture. And something perhaps unexpected that happened, given the very different politics that you have as a progressive and Joe Biden has had historically, is that a lot of the case you’re making isn’t against Joe Biden’s agenda. It’s in favor of that agenda, but pushing back against the dilution of that agenda and the lack of will to fight to rescue that agenda.
DAVID: I think that there’s a difference between the stated goals of the Biden administration and what they’re willing to fight for. It reminds me of the old saying from Paul Wellstone: “If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.”
I certainly think what the Biden administration has put forward rhetorically is — I wouldn’t call it idealism, I wouldn’t call it unrealistic, but it is certainly a relatively robust set of proposals.
The problem is, in my view, it hasn’t been really willing to muster much of a fight at all for those priorities. The White House has an enormous amount of power that it doesn’t appear to be using at all, except maybe to try to pressure the progressive caucus, for instance, to fall in line and vote for whatever piece of paper they can wave around as a “deal.”
I do think Joe Biden fetishizes the idea of getting a deal, no matter what is in the deal. The danger of that is that, whereas people in Washington fetishize deals, the average American is much more interested in what is actually in the deal, whether the actual details of the deal do something to improve their lives.
The role I try to play is following the corruption, the trail of money that tends to explain the gap between rhetoric and the reality. It explains the gap between telling the public you want something and then not actually fighting to do those things, because fighting to actually do those things would require you to have a confrontation with the donor class and with donor-sponsored members of your own party.
And this is where the Biden administration is mirroring the Obama administration: the absolute aversion to having any kind of conflict between the president and the conservative, corporate side of the Democratic Party. Just an absolute refusal to have that fight, which I would argue is absolutely the most necessary thing to have an appetite to do in order to actually get things passed.
Look, I don’t want to idealize FDR too much, but FDR had that battle with the right wing of his party. He ran primaries against members of his own party who weren’t supporting the New Deal. LBJ had those battles with the right wing of his party regarding the passage of Medicare.
History bears out that if you’re not willing to have a battle with the right wing of your party as a Democrat, then you’re not necessarily going to secure transformative legislation. You can go out and say you’re for transformative legislation, but you’re not really going to end up actually delivering because, as the old adage goes, power concedes nothing without a demand.
ANAND: If you are a geriatric millennial like me, you have never actually seen a president do the thing you’re describing. So I understand those FDR and LBJ references, but can you describe what the kind of fight you would want to see from Joe Biden would look like? Given the stalling of his agenda, what might a revival of it look like?