On the menu today: On the local level in New York City, in Congress, and on the world stage, Democrats are belatedly realizing that progressive dreams are not within the “Overton Window” — the realm of what is politically possible.
NYC Mayoral Race Delivers a Reality Check
Way back on June 22, New York City’s Democrats went to the polls to vote in a primary for mayor and other city offices. A mere 14 days later, the city’s Board of Elections counted the final 118,000 absentee ballots, deployed a ranked-choice-elimination system, and then declared that former police captain Eric Adams had won the Democratic primary — meaning that in all likelihood, will be sworn in as mayor on New Year’s Day.
Adams won after New Yorkers ranked their top five candidates out of 13 options in the city mayoral primary — or, if they preferred, choosing fewer than five candidates. Then the bottom eight candidates were eliminated in the first round, and the ballots that ranked those losing candidates first were reallocated to their second choice. After that, with no candidate winning a majority, the ballots of those who had chosen the fifth-highest candidate were reallocated to their preference among the other four. These elimination rounds continued until there were two candidates left, and Adams finished ahead of Kathryn Garcia, the former city sanitation commissioner. It sounds complicated, but it is much simpler when you recognize that Mercury is completing its transit through the zodiac sign of Gemini.
Back on June 24, the great Peggy Noonan hailed Adams’s primary win as a victory of reality over progressive theory. “Adams was a cop for 22 years, left the New York City Police Department as a captain, and was the first and for a long time the only candidate to campaign on crime and the public’s right to safety. He was the first to admit we were in a crime wave.” Noonan observed, accurately, that African-American voters were not necessarily the most progressive voters in the electorate anymore, and that they represented a de facto force of, if not conservatism, then a realist wariness of the fringes of modern progressive thinking.
The notion of a centrist, tough-on-crime mayor replacing the notorious groundhog murderer and early pandemic denier sounds good, but we’ll see. Every elected official operates within a particular “Overton Window”: the range of policies that a politician can recommend without appearing too extreme to gain or keep public office given the climate of public opinion at that time. Adams did not win this primary by a landslide. While he received the most votes in the first round, he was the top choice of less than a third of the city’s Democrats. He has 51.1 percent out of the final two.
New York City desperately needs a dramatic improvement in its policing and prosecution of criminals, but Adams will have to take on a lot of deeply entrenched opponents and a city media and cultural environment that have evolved to reflexively demonize the NYPD. Way back in 2005, Fred Siegel described the New York City of the David Dinkins years as an era of “hysteria that led upstanding liberals to insist that they were more afraid of the NYPD than they were of criminals.” Whatever you think of Rudy Giuliani now, the young(er) mayor of the early 1990s was willing to be utterly hated as he enacted his reforms, convinced that the broader public would look past the controversy and appreciate the effects of lower crime rates. It remains to be seen whether Adams has that same courage to exchange short-term unpopularity for long-term improvement in the city’s streets — or whether he’ll bump up against the city’s Overton Window of what policy changes are acceptable and settle for a series of half measures.
The irony is that we see the same phenomenon in the opposite direction at the national level in Washington. Many progressives interpreted Biden’s presidential win, the 50–50 Senate, and the slightly shrunken House majority in the 2020 elections as a mandate to enact sweeping changes in the country — and they’re largely hitting brick walls. The national Overton Window isn’t wide enough to accommodate the wildest fantasies of progressives.
The Democrats’ big election-reform bill is going nowhere. Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico are no closer to statehood. Biden’s Supreme Court-reform commission doesn’t appear eager to embrace the idea of expanding the size of the Court. Progressives were hoping Steven Breyer would step down after this recent term, but that doesn’t appear likely, at least not yet. Greens are complaining that Biden’s environmental proposals offer “little to nothing of substance.” You’re even starting to hear progressives complain that Bernie Sanders has gone soft and isn’t really pushing Biden to the left anymore.
The Democratic Party’s conventional wisdom on “defunding the police” has switched so intensely, so quickly, that Biden advisers are implausibly claiming Republicans are the ones trying to “defund the police” because they voted against a past Democratic spending bill.
Even the proposal that has dominated the administration’s attention for the past few months, a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure-spending package, isn’t a done deal yet. In the House, Oregon Democrat Kurt Schrader says he would vote against a second infrastructure bill to be passed through reconciliation. Meanwhile, Illinois Democrat Jesús García said this week he would only support a budget-reconciliation package if it includes provisions to grant a pathway to citizenship to a broad spectrum of the country’s undocumented population. With the current four vacancies in the House — two Republican-leaning districts, two Democratic-leaning districts — Nancy Pelosi can afford to lose four votes if everyone is present, and Republicans are unified in opposition to a reconciliation spending bill. For what it’s worth, Representative Ilhan Omar says that 40 members of the Progressive Caucus will vote against the bipartisan infrastructure deal if they don’t get what they want in the subsequent reconciliation spending package.
If you’re a conservative, you probably find the “What flavor ice cream are you eating today, Mr. President?” coverage of this presidency irritating. But if you’re a progressive who expected Biden to go to work to enact your priorities, you must find the fluff coverage infuriating. Every day that Biden’s most-covered comment is about chocolate-chip ice cream is another day that his most-covered comment is not about building support for any particular legislative proposal.
You could argue we’re also seeing the same phenomenon on the global stage.
The Biden team stepped back into power, ready to reinvigorate the old alliances and return back to an Obama-style foreign-policy-establishment view of international relations. But the Overton Window has moved in the past five years. The Iranian regime does not seem all that interested in getting back into a nuclear deal. Biden may well relieve the sanctions on Iran anyway.
Maintaining a unified alliance against Russia and China is much more difficult now, with Germany much more eager to reach compromises with those powers. With Trump out of power, European governments are falling back into old habits of neglecting defense spending.
After Biden’s high-profile warning to Vladimir Putin, the ransomware attacks are only getting more brazen. A Washington Post editorial warns the Biden administration that its tough talk about Putin will look toothless if the accelerating pace of ransomware attacks continue unabated.
And then there’s Afghanistan, where Biden appears set to repeat the same mistakes that Obama made with his withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, establishing the power vacuum that enabled the rise of ISIS.
The range of what is possible and workable on the world stage changed while Biden was out of office. America’s allies, who were not always agreeable to begin with, are less cooperative than they used to be. Russia and China are even more shameless in their disregard of international norms.
Biden and his team could blame Trump, but they explicitly ran on the promise that they knew how to fix things. Everything looks easier on the campaign trail, and most political candidates operate in a fantasy world, where consensuses are quickly and easily formed, their proposals are quickly adopted and enacted, and opposition at home and abroad quickly withers in the face of their awe-inspiring leadership.
In other news, today, President Biden will visit McHenry County College in Illinois to talk up his bipartisan infrastructure proposal. He is expected to visit an ice-cream shop.
ADDENDUM: You’re going to want to read Jack Crowe’s dissection of a Foreign Policy essay by Justin Ling that insists a lab leak is virtually impossible, and that any circumstantial evidence pointing in that direction is merely a mirage. He’s not impressed:
Ling writes, the lack of a guilty mammal shouldn’t surprise us considering that it took roughly ten years to trace the 2003 SARS outbreak back to the bat caves in Yunan, some 900 miles away from where the first SARS case was detected, in rural Guangdong province. Furthermore, since those caves were 900 miles from where the first cases were observed, it shouldn’t surprise us that COVID was able to travel roughly 1,000 miles from the caves in Yunan to the city of Wuhan. The history of SARS, Ling says, “makes a mockery” of the distance argument.
“Ling’s argument is nonsense,” says Gilles Demaneuf, a New Zealand–based data scientist who has focused obsessively on the mathematical probabilities associated with each theory to the exclusion of any political or anecdotal arguments.
Demaneuf explains that when SARS emerged in late 2002, researchers were able to trace the virus to a small raccoon-like mammal, called a masked palm civet, within a matter of weeks. Initial cases were clustered around markets that sold palm civets and restaurants that served a local delicacy that included the animal’s shredded meat.
“This is a reverse of what we had before,” he said. “In SARS we didn’t know the original animal was a bat, but we had the host animal. This time, we know the original animal was a bat, but we don’t have the host animal, so it’s the opposite situation.”
The fact that we haven’t discovered a similar mammal connection in the case of COVID lends further weight to the lab-leak theory because our gene-sequencing capabilities have improved dramatically since the SARS outbreak, according to Yuri Deigin, a biotech entrepreneur who has closely followed the scientific literature around coronaviruses.
Apparently, for the rest of time, allegedly smart people will continue to speak as if “contact with an infected animal” and “lab accident” must be two different and separate scenarios.