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Joe Biden’s Master Class in … Politics?

Does the Biden administration’s recent winning streak, including the Inflation Reduction and CHIPS and Science Acts, contain an object lesson for Philly?

Joe Biden’s Master Class in … Politics?

Does the Biden administration’s recent winning streak, including the Inflation Reduction and CHIPS and Science Acts, contain an object lesson for Philly?

About nine or so years ago, I was at lunch with former Montgomery County State Rep. Mike Gerber, who had decided in 2012 not to seek reelection in favor of a position in the private sector. He’d been a respected legislator and political player, with a campaign slogan of “Progress Over Partisanship” and a roster of public policy wins, including helping to pass a statewide smoking ban and a surge in the Commonwealth’s production of biofuels. Along with Josh Shapiro, he’d been a young, energetic reformer in the staid old statehouse.

We got together for lunch about a year into his new career as chief corporate affairs officer at FS Investments, a firm focused on democratizing investing led by civically engaged founder Michael Forman. (Full disclosure: FS is a sponsor of The Citizen’s Ideas We Should Steal Festival.) I quizzed Gerber about his last gig. He walked me through his education in politics, and it was eye-opening.

He had inherited key relationships from his parents and grandparents who were involved in Democratic politics for decades, chaired his caucus’s political arm, and served as  his party’s deputy whip, which meant that he was responsible for exerting influence on rank and file members to align their votes with leadership. To whip votes, some leaders use tools such as making promises for key committee assignments or offering fundraising help.

But to Gerber, whipping effectively was more about cultivating relationships and knowing what motivated and mattered to his colleagues. He came to see the value in gauging where your caucus is at any given moment: who’s with you, who’s on the fence, who’s opposed, and why. It’s called counting votes, and it’s not as simple as it sounds. Even counting becomes complicated in politics. “A colleague says to you, ‘I love what you’re doing,’ or ‘I think that’s great’ or ‘I’ll have to think about that’ after you pitch him or her on a bill?” I remember Gerber telling me. “That’s likely a no vote. I learned this the hard way. Anything short of, You’ve got my vote and a handshake is a no vote.”

One takeaway from Gerber’s master class in the art of politicking is just how much of a discrete skill it is: The creating of coalitions, the making of strange bedfellows, the dealmaking, the genuine relating.

And whipping votes isn’t just about marshaling one’s own troops; it’s also about appealing to colleagues in your party who have different politics, and reaching across the aisle, in order to protect laws from the vicissitudes of majority whim when power changes hands. Gerber would keep notes on his colleagues — reminders to himself of positions his colleagues hold or connections they may share. He found myriad ways to learn about his fellow members, whether through deep philosophical conversation, listening to floor speeches, reviewing others’ polling, reading their press releases, or simply connecting in idle  hallway chit-chat: So-and-so’s daughter is at summer camp, just like my son. Such-and-such is a big Eagles fan. All ways to break through, to grow a personal connection into a trusted working one as well.

One takeaway from Gerber’s master class in the art of politicking is just how much of a discrete skill it is: The creating of coalitions, the making of strange bedfellows, the dealmaking, the genuine relating. Politics, he told me, is, like life, all about personal relationships, even with those from different parts of the state with different views and party affiliations. Some of his closest relationships were with Republicans, and he may very well have been the most committed partisan in the Democratic caucus as its chief fundraiser and campaign committee chair.

Bumbling bridge builder-in-chief

Fast forward to these strange days, when the electorate seems eager to turn to novices, often in the form of reality show celebrities. Gerber’s type of practical politics seems like an altogether lost art. (One political consultant, effectively throwing in the towel, recently told me that the Democrats should just get it over with already and nominate Tom Hanks for president in 2024).

But now comes the Biden administration, and, for all of ol’ Joe’s bumblings and malapropisms and fits and starts — he coughed his way through the signing of this week’s bipartisan Chips and Science Act in a way that overshadowed the groundbreaking nature of the law — there’s suddenly a stunning record of accomplishment … most of it bipartisan in nature. Maybe politics ain’t dead yet, after all?

Does the substance of Biden’s achievements portend anything for cities like Philadelphia? Is it proof that pragmatic progressivism — a type of third way in divided times — can reverse a city’s slide into dystopia, as Philly appears to be experiencing?

Does the substance of Biden’s achievements — which we’ll get to — portend anything for cities like Philadelphia? Is it proof that pragmatic progressivism — a type of third way in divided times — can reverse a city’s slide into dystopia, as Philly appears to be experiencing? The late Mario Cuomo used to call himself a pragmatic progressive, arguing that governing is about getting beyond ideological sloganeering, snide finger-pointing, and political cynicism and, instead, doing the hard work of delivering for those who have hired you. Sometimes, that means working alongside people with whom you disagree, just as sometimes it means going to war with factions in your own tribe.

It’s hard to believe, but the recent spate of wins posted on the political scoreboard by the Biden administration just might conform to Cuomo’s long-ago vision. Let’s look at the record. I’m among those who had been cringing at the president’s political miscalculations — kowtowing to his party’s left wing when, all of last fall, there was a deal to be made with Senator Joe Manchin along the lines of what is now known as the misleadingly-named Inflation Reduction Act. (The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says that its effect on inflation will be negligible this year and into next).

Moreover, Biden’s communication skills have proven to be horrid. That is not, as Fox News would have you believe, a function of his age. Joe Biden, God bless him, has always been a babbling gaffe machine. That’s why, way back in the 1980s, one colleague in the Senate complained that, “You ask Joe Biden what time it is and he’ll tell you how to make a watch.”

But what he is is what he advertised himself to be in the 2020 campaign: A decent man, yes, but also maybe one of the last practitioners of this particular art of practical politics. Let’s look at what has quite surprisingly turned out to be one of the most successful first two years in recent presidential history, even if the polls don’t reflect it. In addition to an efficient rollout of vaccines and school openings early in his term, and historic job growth throughout, there has been:

    • The $1.9 trillion American Recovery Act.
    • The $550 billion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, an under-appreciated historically big bet on rebuilding highways, bridges, broadband, and rail.
    • The aforementioned Inflation Reduction Act, which represents the largest investment in combating climate change in history, the lowering of prescription drug prices, and deficit reduction.
    • The ending (sloppily) of a 20-year war in Afghanistan and the rebuilding of the NATO alliance in the face of Russia’s crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
    • The killing of the mastermind of 9/11.
    • The first significant bipartisan gun safety legislation in 30 years.
    • A bipartisan law enhancing health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, with an assist from outraged comedian Jon Stewart.
    • And the aforementioned $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act, which invests billions in American semiconductor manufacturing (at a time when China controls the sector) and makes sweeping investments in scientific research, R & D, and regional technology hubs.

Together with the proposed Bipartisan Innovation Act, the Biden administration has advanced more of a thoughtful industrial policy than any president since JFK

I know, I’m as surprised as you: That’s a helluva lot of wins in a first term with a doddering president and a 50-50 Senate. So how’d he do it? Politics, just like Gerber taught me. Note that all but two of Biden’s accomplishments, the ARP and IRA — not coincidentally the two biggest-ticket items — had significant Republican support. Why does that matter? Because if we don’t get to some middle ground consensus, American history will turn into a zero-sum game of one party, newly ascendant, reversing all that its opposition accomplished — until their fortunes flip again. It’s a recipe for utter stasis, which is pretty much where we’ve been.

The national leader who is talking with everyone

The poster woman for this type of politics — call it pragmatic progressivism through a bipartisan lens — is Biden’s Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, a one time venture capitalist turned governor of Rhode Island. She’s fast becoming the star of the Biden administration, as this Boston Globe piece demonstrates in documenting how she painstakingly rescued the CHIPS and Science Act from extinction time and again and shepherded it to passage:

In a deeply divided and partisan Washington, Raimondo is the rare politician who draws high praise from such disparate sources as conservative Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker and progressive “Squad” member and Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib.

“Gina Raimondo might be the best appointment Joe Biden has made during his time in office,” Wicker said.

“I’ve never had a secretary this transparent,” said Tlaib.

Top congressional players on the bill touted Raimondo’s bipartisan and business sensibilities as a former venture capital executive, saying they were crucial in the negotiations on the legislation, which is designed to alleviate the nation’s supply chain issues by spurring semiconductor manufacturers to build factories in the United States.

Over the last year, it turns out, Raimondo took part in more than 300 calls and meetings with lawmakers on the bill, and participated in another 250 meetings listening to and lining up support from business  and trade groups and unions. She didn’t let partisanship get in the way of good policy. When she heard Trump’s former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster on the Joe Rogan podcast — of all places — praise the bill, she reached out for his support. Stressing the national security implications of stealing semiconductor market share from China, she cold-called Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and got him to enlist the help of Congressional Republicans.

Let’s do all that in Philly

Recently, despite having long left public office, Gerber was appointed by Biden to chair the federal government’s retirement system board, the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, with full-throated support from both of Pennsylvania’s senators, Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Bob Casey. Like Raimondo’s reaches across the aisle in pursuit of solutions, this stuff ain’t sexy, but it’s what politics can be, when practiced with an eye on the common good. It seeks to converge interests, rather than drive apart.

It’s why my hero, Bobby Kennedy, used to call politics a “noble profession.” Because, in those increasingly rare cases when it works, seniors can afford insulin, kids who haven’t been exposed to STEM education can actually learn, bridges can get rebuilt, folks can retire with dignity, and the nation can compete on the global economic stage.

Here’s hoping that candidates for mayor or council in our not-so-distant future will concede that political skills are not just about getting elected, but are also critical to governing.

Dare I say it, but maybe there’s a Biden/Raimondo/Gerber doctrine emerging? And who here in our city is likely to be a devotee of such a philosophy, one that uses the amino acids of politics to get things done in the real lives of real people? We have mayoral and council races on the horizon, and, to date, we’ve had an abundance of purely performative politics: The shouting, the bumper sticker sloganeering, the finger-pointing.

With the exception of a modest business tax-cutting compromise in the City’s most recent budget, we haven’t seen a lot of practical problem-solving from our so-called leaders. Here’s hoping that candidates for mayor or council in our not-so-distant future will concede that political skills are not just about getting elected, but are also critical to governing. The candidate who can show, for example, that they’ve skillfully put together a diverse set of interests toward a common goal or marshaled together nine votes on council to support a favored policy will be doing more than just talking.

They’ll be getting shit done, just like a wildly unpopular geriatric president. Go figure.



President Joe Biden visits the Flatirons Campus of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Arvada, Colorado, September 14th 2021. Photo by Werner Slocum / NREL via Flickr

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