The case for hopeful realism

Written by E.J Dionne, Jr. and published in the Washington Post 3/6/2022

The U.S. Capitol in November 2021. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

It’s time for hopeful realism about what government can achieve in 2022 and beyond.

Putting this disposition to work is essential to dialing down the political divisions that have torn the country apart, beginning with the rise of the tea party in the Obama years and even more toxically by the Trump movement. It also happens to be the only approach that gives Democrats a fighting chance to hold their majorities in the House and Senate this fall.

Hopeful realism is both “centrist” and “progressive,” yet also neither. It would push aside abstract debates about whether programs were too radical or insufficiently bold, too big or not big enough. The focus instead should be on what can be done, now, to deal with problems that moderates and liberals alike see as urgent.

Three developments undergird the case for this approach, which increasingly defines thinking in the White House and among congressional Democrats.

By making the stakes of politics so high, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reminded us of how puny and recklessly trivial our nation’s debate has become. It is wholly unequal to the threats facing democracy, world order and freedom.

Second, the scuttling of President Biden’s Build Back Better program requires a return to the drawing board. The plan was always more practical in its aspirations than it got credit for. But Democrats allowed (and Republicans encouraged) a debate that focused relentlessly on how big the program should be rather than what it would do.

The third factor is the one most easily overlooked: passage last week of a $1.5 trillion bill to fund the government for the rest of the year that included a $46 billion increase in nondefense spending and a $42 billion increase in military spending.

True, Congress passing a budget should not be a big deal. This is what normal government looks like. But we have not had normal government for a long time.

With all the big numbers that were thrown around in the Build Back Better debate (as well as the enormous expenditures that kept the economy from collapsing during the height of the covid-19 pandemic), you might also say that these 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 year-to-year work of Congress involves major public investments in many issues addressed by Build Back Better and the new budget reflects a “paradigm shift” in domestic spending.

A lot of work got done in this bill. For starters: a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act; $1 billion for Biden’s priority of financing research into cures for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s; substantial new money for maternal and child health programs; a major increase in Pell grants to help lower-income students pay for higher education; and a down payment on spending to fight climate change.

In his State of the Union message, Biden also highlighted the urgency of efforts to grapple with the opioid crisis, and on Thursday, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) hailed the nearly $1 billion in grants in the budget under the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA).

This underscores that “bipartisan” does not automatically mean “lacking substance.” Portman has long championed the CARA program, along with Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), while Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) have pushed for expanded access to opioid treatment in correctional facilities.

We need to take bipartisan wins where we can find them. On drug addiction, it’s urgent to act in inner cities and rural areas alike.

Skeptics might see hopeful realism as a form of retrenchment, and in some ways it is. It means accepting that narrow majorities, particularly in the Senate, could not sustain the level of change that many of us thought they could.

But it’s still possible to make this a year of step-by-step progress and to show that government has the capacity to function effectively — and, maybe, with a little less rancor.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) summed up the imperative this way: “We have to get done what we can get done with the votes we have,” he told me, “and that would be a big step forward.”

That’s hopeful realism talking.