2021 was a fascinating political year. We look at some of the things learned over the past 12 months.
For Democrats at the national level, in control of Washington, 2021 started off with high hopes for major legislative accomplishments. Republicans played defense all year, overshadowed by the presence of former President Donald Trump. What are the lessons of their successes and failures?
Pignanelli: “The story of the year’s politics has been one of partisan, cultural and ideological divisions that defy easy resolution. Neither party has the strength to really impose its will. So, in 2021, governing was just hard.” — Gerald Seib, Wall Street Journal
For political observers, 2021 confirmed the traditional rules of politics remain significant. For example, an understanding of mathematics is critical for success. A three-vote majority in the U.S. House and a one-vote majority in the U.S. Senate is not a mandate. Instead, these numbers signal an absolute requirement of collaboration to pass anything.
President Joseph Biden, when a senator, was masterful in cobbling together coalitions on large legislative initiatives. Thus, it was no surprise congressional bipartisanship delivered the largest legislative accomplishment, the $1.2 trillion for infrastructure improvements. But for everything else, left-wing progressives apparently need tutoring on this lesson.
Electoral activities in 2021 further underscored voters care about the future, not the past. Democrats who messaged against Trump, and Republicans who embraced the former president, fared poorly. The rule “stuff happens so be prepared” was ignored, at an expense. Coronavirus variants, the Afghanistan pullout and price inflation all raised competency questions towards the Biden administration.
The tenet “Democracy is messy” was evident. Americans are wrestling with teaching race, mandatory vaccinations, nondiscrimination principles and climate change. While seeming confusing and traumatic, all Americans are engaged in conversations of these issues.
The overarching lesson of 2021 is that Americans cannot be taken for granted. They rightfully demand explanations and participation in the process. This is truly heartwarming.
Webb: The biggest political lesson of 2021 is this: Don’t overreach; don’t assume you have a mandate to take the country in a radical new direction when you don’t. A corollary is this: Understand the mood of the country, especially working-class citizens in the heartland, before trying to force through dramatic change. Don’t try to govern the entire country through the lens of East Coast and West Coast values.
Democrats won the presidency and the U.S. House and Senate fair and square (despite protestations by Trump). But the margins of victory were tiny. The Senate is 50-50. Republicans picked up a lot of House seats. And Joe Biden barely won the presidency.
But instead of governing with a little humility, from the center, reaching out to the other side, the Democrats swung for a grand slam left-wing home run, championing every ultra-progressive issue and program imaginable.
Now Biden suffers almost historically low approval ratings, the progressive wing of the party is angry and disillusioned, and the stage is set for Republicans to win big in the 2022 midterms. It was never realistic for progressive Democrats to try to transform society.
Meanwhile, Republicans effectively played the loyal opposition all year. But when they have to perform in elections and policy initiatives, the wild card that is the Trump card could mess things up.
In Utah, the priorities of a new governor, a headstrong Republican legislature, a vibrant economy and the hazards of redistricting all combined to produce an intriguing year. What did we learn about our state politics?
Pignanelli: Utahns are a pragmatic people, and many actions of our state officials reflected this virtue. Controversial social issues were reviewed but also confined to prevent them overwhelming deliberations in other matters. The critical attention on water, air quality, climate change and growth problems were subtle but very real.
Utah is growing with a diverse demographic flavor. We are a global center of innovation for technology, financial services and health care. Yet, the “Utah Way” remains a priority. Another refreshing sign of the times.
Webb: Utah is by no means perfect. We face our share of problems. We need to do a better job with education, for example. But we have good governance in Utah. Our state and local leaders don’t ignore problems. They solve them thoughtfully and reasonably. They take care of basic needs and they balance budgets. They are in sync with citizen priorities and values. This is a good time to be a Utahn.
Hovering above everything in 2021 was the COVID-19 pandemic. What political impact did the dreaded coronavirus have?
Pignanelli: Response to the pandemic became a litmus test for many officeholders across the political spectrum. This will influence interparty contests in 2022.
Webb: It’s unfortunate that the pandemic turned into a divisive political issue. Trump was vilified by his opponents for not controlling the pandemic. But Biden and the Democrats haven’t done any better. This is a tough battle, more difficult than anyone anticipated. Biden’s struggles with COVID-19 — including not being prepared with millions of test kits needed right now — are contributing to his low approval ratings.
The reality is that neither Biden or Trump deserve criticism for things outside of their control. But when bad things happen, the people in charge get the blame.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah Legislature. Email: email@example.com.