Besides being among the most expensive in history, Tuesday’s Georgia runoffs were among the most closely watched, deciding as they will whether Joe Biden will be a president with unified party control of Congress or preside over another four years of divided government. As of yesterday, both Democratic challengers, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, have officially eked out narrow wins over the GOP incumbents in Georgia, namely human tax loophole Kelly Loeffler and stock trader and sometime senator David Perdue.
With the victories locked in, this will only be the beginning of a much longer and broader battle, starting with the question of doing away with the filibuster. With a fifty-fifty split in the Senate and vice president Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote, Biden and his party will have the narrowest of narrow margins by which to pass legislation in the middle of a health and economic crisis that looks set to continue dragging on. In many ways, the biggest significance of Warnock’s win and Ossoff’s probable victory isn’t their effect on what comes next, but has to do with the lessons we and the general public can take away from them.
Promising to Make People’s Lives Better Works
It remains to be seen whether a barely Democratic Senate will actually result in much of any left-wing policy. This is still a corrupt and out-of-touch Democratic party; the president is an austerity-minded conservative surrounded by advisers plucked from finance and big business; and the only way anything will get done is if Senate Democrats somehow drag their most conservative members over to first vote lockstep in favor of eliminating the filibuster, then voting lockstep for every other piece of legislation they put forward. More than likely, the party establishment will do what it always does and make a point out of shunning and disrespecting the Left, whom they blame for their November downballot drubbing.
Regardless, what happened last night couldn’t have happened without the Left that the Democratic establishment so ardently despises. If it had been up to them, just as they’d rolled over on Donald Trump’s third and final Supreme Court pick a month out from the election, Ossoff and Warnock would’ve had no issue to run on: party leadership had somehow negotiated an initially fairly hefty stimulus proposal down by about a trillion dollars, and, at Biden’s urging, were ready to accept a meager package that had no direct payments at all.
It was socialist senator Bernie Sanders’s threats of a filibuster that put the stimulus checks back into play, and his work, together with socialists and progressives in the House (plus a surprise assist from Trump), that turned the $2,000 figure into a popular, headline-making flagship demand.
Meanwhile, it was progressive groups like Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement — the very groups blamed by the party’s centrists for their underwhelming November showing — who had urged the strategy the party took in the end. On December 10, they released a memo calling on Democrats to make stimulus checks “the central issue in the Georgia Senate runoffs,” for Ossoff and Warnock to “campaign on it,” and for “Democrats at every level” to “make it unambiguously clear that if Georgians give Democrats the Senate, this will get done and the money will get in their pockets.”
And just as progressive and other grassroots groups worked hard to drag an often barely existent Biden over the line this past November in Georgia and other battleground states, they did the same in these runoffs. The Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights set the target of knocking on 290,000 doors ahead of the elections, People’s Action embarked on a deep canvassing operation in the state, Sunrise sought to register ten to twenty thousand voters by January 5, and Our Revolution worked alongside the Stacey Abrams–funded New Georgia Project to turn out the vote.
None of this means much in terms of policy. Biden isn’t going to throw the Left a bone out of gratitude, as the president-elect made clear when shouting at civil rights leaders for expecting him to do anything as president. But it does suggest the Left has some real, albeit limited, influence. Speaking of which . . .
Forcing Biden to Move Leftward Is Possible
The idea that Joe Biden is the next Franklin Delano Roosevelt was always laughable, not least because one of Biden’s overriding, career-long projects has been dismantling what Roosevelt built. Nevertheless, the cynicism correctly thrown at this idea has sometimes been taken to mean it would be impossible to pressure Biden into anything at all.
But the course of the Georgia runoffs suggests there are some real, albeit limited, ways the incoming president-elect could be forced to pursue at least some progressive measures. Out of pure political necessity, Biden at the eleventh hour embraced the $2,000 direct payments, a measure he had spent the entirety of last year avoiding like it was the coronavirus itself, and that he had from all appearances only reluctantly endorsed last week. It’s fair to say Biden was among the last US politicians to embrace the policy, beaten even by Trump, and was cornered into backing it once the idea was taken up by congressional Democrats and became a national issue.
In fact, one of the remarkable aspects of the stimulus negotiations has been the irrelevance of both the sitting president and his impending successor in what is arguably right now the most important policy issue facing the country. His last-minute veto threat aside, Trump has been content to let Mitch McConnell do as he saw fit with the stimulus package, despite its importance to Trump’s possible 2024 run; Biden, meanwhile, involved himself little aside from urging Democrats to take a vastly inferior deal, a decision that was ultimately overruled by Sanders and senator Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) push for stimulus checks, which Biden was forced to embrace in the end.
It’s too early to know how the next four years will pan out, but there could be worse scenarios for a Biden term than a listless president forced to sign off on measures sent to his desk by a Congress more willing to be bold.
Mitch McConnell and the Republicans Aren’t Geniuses
While it’s true that the US right is far more ruthless, better organized, and strategic than their liberal counterparts, the ineptitude and seemingly perpetual failure of the Democratic establishment sometimes makes the Right seem smarter than it is. It’s worth remembering that the GOP can be just as shortsighted and ideologically blinkered as its opposition.
These runoffs are a case in point. It’s no exaggeration that Republican chances were sunk almost single-handedly by the crypt keeper of Democratic political ambitions himself, Mitch McConnell. McConnell’s determined and successful blocking of the $2,000 stimulus checks pushed by Sanders, the Democrats, and Trump handed Ossoff and Warnock the ideal issue in the campaign’s waning days, repeating the same unforced error that Nancy Pelosi had committed during the general election campaign.
Meanwhile, it’s more than likely Trump became an albatross around the GOP incumbents’ necks due to his laughable yet scandalous attempts to cancel the election results, a matter that dominated the news just prior to the runoffs. Polling shows a solid majority of Georgians (mostly Democrats and independents) think the November election result was fair and accurate, around the same proportion that disapproves of Trump’s handling of the election result — a majority that went overwhelmingly for Ossoff.
With Republicans, including Loeffler and Perdue, embarking on a half-baked attempt to invalidate the election results to align themselves with Trump and play to their base, it may well have turned off some Georgia voters in the tight races.
Fearmongering About Radicalism Doesn’t Work
The question of whether voters could reliably be spooked into withdrawing their support for left-leaning candidates by darkly gesturing to their supposedly radical backgrounds should have been settled years ago. Barack Obama handily won two presidential elections, including the state of Florida each time, despite nonstop accusations of (sadly fictional) socialist beliefs, and despite a close personal association with figures like Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers. This, of course, all came after savvy political experts had spent months insisting Obama was unelectable, whether due to his past drug use or simply the voting public’s insurmountable prejudices.
Incredibly, neither pundits, Democratic officials, nor the voters they both hold captive seemed to learn anything from this episode, with the fear of another Obama-like candidate, one supposedly too different, too far left, and too scary — not for me, of course, but for those other voters — continuing to push the party into the arms of a series of uninspiring and occasionally politically toxic centrists. But if Obama’s two wins didn’t do it, then Raphael Warnock’s victory last night should, in a world that makes sense, spell the end of this debilitating political timidity.
Loeffler and the GOP’s strategy against Warnock was to run the Obama playbook again, but on steroids. Loeffler trotted out a stream of desperate attempts to gin up a scandal around Warnock: he’s criticized Israel; he worked at a church that hosted Fidel Castro once; he has made vague criticisms of racism, greed, poverty, the police, and militarism — they even brought back Reverend Wright. Loeffler warned thirteen times in one debate that Warnock was a “radical liberal,” later upgrading that to “Marxist.”
Both she and Perdue stressed not just the supposed radicalism of their opponents, but warned audiences a Democratic victory in the runoffs would hand power to elected socialists. “If we lose Georgia, Bernie Sanders is the budget chairman,” senator Lindsay Graham correctly warned voters at one stop. “We are the firewall to socialism in this country,” Loeffler told them. Perdue’s ads likewise floated the specter of “total control” of government by figures like Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, urging voters to “save America” from police defunding, undocumented immigrants voting, and more.
“If you vote for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who are you really putting into power?” asked one Republican ad. “Nancy Pelosi, A.O.C. and Bernie Sanders — the far left with complete, unchecked power to defund our police, give amnesty to illegals, let government take over your health care and push massive tax hikes.”
This was exactly the type of messaging that right-wing Democrats had just been dishonestly blaming for the party’s underperformance. And yet in purple Georgia, it was a resounding flop, while Democrats took a page from the Left and combined a populist policy of direct cash payments with their own attack ads stressing Perdue and Loeffler’s extreme wealth.
It’s of course naive to believe all this won’t simply be intentionally forgotten by the time the next establishment Democrat faces down a left-wing challenger. But Warnock and Ossoff’s wins would ideally lead at least some Democratic voters to finally retire their perpetual fear of the half-remembered 1972 George McGovern campaign.