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Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.
President-elect Joe Biden is turning Maine Rep. Jared Golden into a major congressional power broker.
That wasn’t Biden’s plan, but it results from his quest for Cabinet diversity right after a close House election.
Golden is a moderate-to-conservative Democrat, elected by a district that has twice voted for Trump. He is a member of the Blue Dog coalition, composed of the most conservative House Democrats. For a second time, he opposes electing Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi as speaker.
While Biden won the presidency, House Democrats lost seats. That’s unusual, because the coattails of a newly elected president often add more members of his party.
This year, some voters split their ballots, balancing their votes for Biden with support for Republican congressional candidates. Apparently, they sought to maintain divided government after Trump departs.
With three seats still undecided, Pelosi has a five-seat majority in the 435-member House. Biden has picked three Democratic House members for his team. Even if they are replaced later by Democrats, at the outset Golden’s party may control the House by only two votes. Biden has boosted the ability of Golden and his fellow Blue Dogs to be swing Democratic members.
During the presidential primary campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders called for a massive outpouring of voters to support progressive policies. Some left-wing House Democrats, elected in 2018, thought they would gain more allies. Sanders’ voters hoped that, if Biden won, he would pick a progressive Cabinet.
Sanders got his massive turnout, but the result was a clear message that voters want moderation, and they like some Trump policies. There would be no revolution. Biden will have to proceed carefully, forced to keep little-known Golden in mind as much as the celebrated Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Biden’s avowed goal has been to appoint a Cabinet of qualified people, reflecting the diversity of the American population. Given past discrimination against women and Blacks, he understandably wants a new look.
But his appointments suggest that either he has not heard the mixed message from the voters or he hopes to expand his appeal to some Republicans. But, in the 2022 midterm elections, the Democrats, the party of the president, would normally be expected to lose seats.
In his effort to increase diversity, Biden may encourage support for politicians who criticize what they label as “political correctness.” They are backed by white voters with less than a college degree, people who supported Donald Trump. They may not be impressed by Biden’s approach.
Another potentially troublesome aspect of Biden’s team is that it includes so many former Obama officials. One ABC reporter caught himself as he started to refer to the “O’Biden” administration. You might guess that’s what reporters are saying among themselves.
Trump tried to erase Obama and to discredit almost anything his administration had done. So it is not surprising that Biden seeks to bring back the architects of Obama’s policies to renew and strengthen their influence on the country. But he seems to have gone too far.
If the new administration looks too much like Obama’s, the risk is that it will do little more than try to erase Trump. Tom Vilsack, secretary of agriculture through all eight years of the Obama administration, will be back in the same job. Will he come up with new ideas? Why not a new person as associated with nutrition as with crops?
Biden has offered little by way of a vision that goes beyond traditional Democratic rhetoric. His administration seems mostly designed to avoid extremes, but where does he want it to go?
Biden and his Cabinet will have to try to strike a balance between Sanders progressives and traditional, blue-collar Democrats. If he keeps his eye on the midterm elections, he will need to manage both his diverse party and a deeply divided Congress. That’s a huge challenge.
By temporarily trimming the House Democratic majority, he has made passing new policies more difficult, especially in his first 100 days when he is at the peak of his power. His best hope for major changes may be adding the public option to the Affordable Care Act and in foreign policy.
Republican senators should not block Biden’s Cabinet choices. As in the past, a new president should be able to pick his team. If not, it’s a declaration of war. But a closely divided Senate and a House influenced by Blue Dog Democrats are unlikely to accept some of Biden’s progressive proposals.
Biden needs to reach out to Republicans and more traditional Democratic voters directly, over the heads of congressional GOP leadership, while pleasing progressives. That will be a tough balancing task.
Not only must Biden depend on Golden and his allies, but he might even learn something about political balancing from this Maine moderate.