When the networks declared Joe Biden the winner of the presidential election, his agenda seemed stillborn. Because most observers assumed that Republicans would win at least one of the two Georgia Senate runoffs and retain control of the upper chamber, they thought that Biden wouldn’t get much of anything done. But Raphael Warnock defeated Kelly Loeffler in Georgia last night, and Jon Ossoff currently leads David Perdue in the tally, leaving the Democrats likely to take control of the Senate.
This is good news. Georgians seem to have repudiated Donald Trump’s ongoing assault on democratic institutions. Judging from the apparent results, they no longer want Mitch McConnell and the obstructionist Republicans to be in charge of the United States Senate. And they hope to give the incoming president a chance to actually govern the country.
Democrats will, if the current vote tallies stand, enjoy unified control of Congress. That would allow them to push through Biden’s nominations for the Cabinet, the judiciary, and key agencies like the Federal Reserve. And by taking over the leadership of the chamber’s committees, they would actually be able to shape Congress’s agenda.
For these reasons, if I were a resident of Georgia, I would not have hesitated for a moment before voting for Ossoff and Warnock. But a double victory would, nonetheless, create serious difficulties for Democrats—and might even make it less likely for Biden to win reelection.
If Democrats enjoy full control of the government, progressives will push to advance a wish list that includes the Green New Deal, radically overhauling health care, a new Voting Rights Act, packing the Supreme Court, and granting statehood to Washington, D.C.
But even victories in Georgia wouldn’t give Democrats nearly enough power to make those kinds of changes. In the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has to hold together a slim 11-vote majority that includes both democratic socialists like Cori Bush and staunch moderates like Abigail Spanberger. In the Senate, the filibuster means that any major legislation will require 60 votes—which is to say at least 10 Republican senators—to advance.
Even when a simple majority is sufficient, Democrats need every single member of their caucus, including blue-dog Democrats from deep-red states, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to get on board. And because Manchin has already said that he is not willing to abolish the filibuster, hopes for far-reaching institutional reforms really are dead on arrival.
Most of the deeply progressive policies on which leftist activists have set their heart simply don’t enjoy a majority in the United States Congress. And even if, against the odds, Biden and his team somehow manage to push one of these projects through a recalcitrant Congress, a Supreme Court dominated by conservative judges might well quash it after the fact.
On paper, Biden looks set to gain unified control over Congress. In practice, he won’t enjoy many of its traditional benefits. But he will suffer from all of its downsides.
If Perdue or Loeffler had held on to their Senate seat, which now seems unlikely, Fox News would still have done its best to inspire vitriol against Biden. But a president who has repeatedly promised to be a restorative rather than a revolutionary figure in office, and who doesn’t even have control of the Senate, would have made it much harder for conservative talking heads to inspire fear about the radical changes afoot. If Ossoff and Warnock win, their job will get a good bit easier.
Republican control of the Senate would also have made it much simpler for Biden to manage the expectations of the party’s activist wing. If activists had pushed for progressive policies that were deeply unpopular with most Americans, Biden could truthfully have pointed to Mitch McConnell’s majority as a reason to desist. Every one of McConnell’s obstructionist moves would have delayed a civil war within the Democratic Party by another week or month.
Finally, a Republican Senate would have provided the White House with a compelling culprit for anything that might go wrong in the next four years. When facing the voters again in 2024, Biden could have blamed his opponents’ refusal to cooperate or compromise for the country’s problems—and asked them for a clearer mandate to finish the job.
All in all, Ossoff and Warnock winning is better than the alternative. The moderate changes—such as greater infrastructure spending and much-needed fixes to the Affordable Care Act—Democrats should be able to push through a Congress in which Joe Manchin casts the decisive vote can make a positive difference in the life of average Americans. And it would have been depressing if voters in Georgia had rewarded Trump and the Republican Party for their irresponsible refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election.
But the relief over the likely result in Georgia should not make us forget that the White House will in some ways face the worst of both worlds. Conservatives will rally around an obstructionist agenda. Progressives will blame Biden for his inevitable failure to enact radical policies. But whatever he does, he simply does not have enough power to force the change that many in his party desire.