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Commentary: What the voters told Joe Biden

Peter Morici (copy)

Peter Morici

In the recent elections, Americans expressed with considerable clarity they are not receptive to the radical agenda embraced by too many Democrats since Elizabeth Warren and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez stormed Washington.

Joe Biden’s more affable demeanor defeated President Trump’s governing style — albeit with help from the mainstream media — but the big blue wave got flushed. Republicans are hanging on in the Senate, scored gains in the House and kept their edge in governorships and state legislatures.

Liberal California shot down referendum proposals to lift its ban on affirmative action in state hiring and university admissions, extend rent control, raise taxes on commercial landlords and force Uber, Lyft and delivery drivers to become employees. That snubbed organized labor, which too often steals workers’ rights to grasp more union membership cards and dues.

Voters’ free market sentiments have limits, too. Mr. Trump won Florida and the GOP flipped House seats by warning voters of the dangers of the Democratic Party’s embrace of socialism, but the Sunshine State also voted in favor of a referendum question on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour in steps by 2026.

The country is moderate, not split. It’s the intellectual establishment in the media, academia and hard-left politicians, which were overrepresented in the Democratic presidential primary field, that embrace destructive obsessions like critical race theory, the cancel culture and alleged failures of capitalism, not the common folk.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer went into the elections with approval ratings south of Mr. Trump's. Mrs. Pelosi’s strident, high-profile posture in stimulus negotiations with the White House was blamed by colleagues for some Democratic losses.

Mr. Biden does not have a mandate for radical-left policies, and the GOP in the Senate ought to cooperate on moderate proposals to address climate change, reform policing and accomplish greater inclusiveness in American prosperity.

Republican senators should recall what happened to Tom Daschle with a similarly divided Senate during George W. Bush’s first term. John Thune defeated the Democratic leader in 2004 after labeling him the “chief obstructionist.”

Mr. Biden should shelve his most aggressive tax proposals and instead focus on first getting the country through the vaccination phase and instituting comprehensive testing and tracking to curb COVID-19, as Japan and South Korea have accomplished. And support economic recovery with a substantial stimulus plan that includes aid to states that replaces the $434 billion in lost revenue imposed by the pandemic.

He can tie taxes to specific purposes and win results. For example, raising the gas tax, which has been stuck at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, and some user fees to finance better roads and bridges and to help subsidize the transition to electric vehicles.

Americans like industrial policy, but conservatives have too often demagogued it as socialism. We would not have had the Erie Canal, Homestead Act and Morrill Act that created our great state universities, the transcontinental railway and American leadership in aviation and space exploration without it.

In all those cases, political leaders were giving broad constituencies what they wanted and what technological possibilities provided. Hence, they were moving in directions market forces would support. That stands in sharp contrast to the blue-sky paternalism of the Obama-Biden administration with its failed high-speed rail and Solyndra fiascos.

A lot has changed since those days. Solar and wind energy are less expensive and more competitive with gas turbines. Battery storage technology is improving, and five of the largest utilities — Southern Co., Xcel Energy, Duke Energy, Dominion Energy and Public Service Enterprise Group — have set goals to be carbon free by 2050. Many others are embracing similar objectives.

It makes a lot of sense to sit down with industry — not writing policy papers about endemic racism, social justice and AOC’s Green New Deal — to find ways to accelerate those technological possibilities and move up the zero-carbon target.

Germany, Japan and China are preparing blueprints to aggressively compete in hydrogen. We aren’t.

Voters made clear Mr. Biden should be practical and pragmatic, but who he appoints to head the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments — hysterical radicals vs. pragmatic dealmakers — will importantly determine whether he stokes divisions or heals the nation.

Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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