Reviews | The Case for Hopeful Realism
Hopeful realism is both ‘centrist’ and ‘progressive’, but also neither. This would rule out abstract debates about whether the programs were too radical or not bold enough, too big or not big enough. Rather, the focus should be on what can be done, now, to address the issues that moderates and liberals see as pressing.
Three developments justify this approach.
By making the stakes so high, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reminded us how puny and recklessly trivial our nation’s debate has become. With democracy, world order and freedom under threat, we can begin to see more clearly how inadequate our policies are at the moment.
Second, the sabotage of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda requires a return to the drawing board. The plan has always been more practical in its aspirations than was believed. But Democrats allowed (and Republicans encouraged) a debate that focused relentlessly on how big the program would be rather than what it would do.
Now the question for all wings of the Democratic Party is what useful measures from Build Back Better can be clawed back – to fight climate change, reduce prescription drug costs, care for and educate children, return taxes fairer. It is, by the way, the more moderate Democrats in the swing districts who need to do something the most. They want to visit their constituents with accomplishments they can talk about.
The third factor is the most easily overlooked: the passage last week of a $1.5 trillion bill to fund the government for the remainder of the year included a $46 billion increase in non-military spending and a $42 billion increase in military spending.
Certainly, Congress passing a budget shouldn’t be a big deal. This is what normal government looks like. But we haven’t had a normal government for a long time.
With all the big numbers that have been thrown around in the Build Back Better debate (as well as the huge spending that prevented the economy from collapsing at the height of the covid-19 pandemic), you could also say that those sums don’t seem, well, transformational.
But as Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, noted in an interview, the annual work of Congress involves major public investments in many of the issues addressed by Build Back Better and the new budget reflects a “paradigm shift” in domestic spending.
Much work has been done in this bill. For starters: a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act; $1 billion for Biden’s priority to fund research into cures for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease; substantial new funding for maternal and child health programs; a significant increase in Pell Grants to help low-income students pay for higher education; and a down payment on expenses to combat climate change.
In his State of the Union message, Biden also stressed the urgency of efforts to address the opioid crisis, and on Thursday, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) greeted the nearly $1 billion grants budgeted under the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA).
This underscores that “bipartisan” does not automatically mean “lack of substance.” Portman has long championed the CARA program, in the same way Senses. Sheldon Whitehouse (DR.I.), Shelley Moore Capito (RW.Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.), while Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ann Kuster (DN.H.) have pushed for expanded access to opioid treatment in correctional facilities.
We must take bipartisan victories where we can find them. On drug addiction, it is urgent to act both in city centers and in rural areas.
Skeptics might see hopeful realism as a form of entrenchment, and in some ways it is. It means accepting that narrow majorities, especially in the Senate, could not sustain the level of change that many of us thought we could.
But there is still room to make this year a year of step-by-step progress and show that government has the ability to operate effectively — and, perhaps, with a little less grudge.
Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) summed up the imperative this way: “We have to do what we can do with the votes we have,” he told me, “and that would be a big step forward. ”
It is hopeful realism.