“What’s the matter with Kansas?”

An 1896 editorial in a Kansas newspaper carried that headline. It became a national mantra, revived in a 2004 book, a film – both with that title – plus a New York Times commentary last week. They all concluded that average people often vote against their own best interests.

After this month’s elections, political pundits deployed in force. Most explained to us Washington outsiders that the Democrats had suffered a bad loss, while Trump’s GOP won. They urged the Dems to tap dance over to the right so they could keep alive their slim chances for the 2022 congressional elections.

If you ever wanted to know the definition of “conventional wisdom,” that was it. In other words, the “experts” saw the Democratic Progressives having pulled the party and President Biden to the left, away from the political mainstream. They paid the price at the ballot box.

In this view, the problem stemmed from the extreme policies unduly influencing a party clinging to a bare majority. Policies like paid sick leave, free community college and even tax increases on billionaires were too far ahead of what people would accept. The country is “center-right” opined Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (WV), not “center-left.”

Oddly, polling showed that a majority of Americans favor most “center-left” policies. Maybe the pundits missed something that was bigger than issues. Perhaps the view that people favored more moderate policies was not the cause of Democratic setbacks.

David Leonhardt in the Times took a different view from the pundits, one consistent with the Kansas book. Democratic Party losses or narrow wins were not the result of its dalliance with the Progressive Left, but because it had lost its focus on the attitudes of average working people.

In its focus on appealing to suburban voters, traditionally backers of the GOP, it had assumed that generous federal spending would help it retain the support of middle income workers and their families. It had failed to understand that many of these voters were driven more by their culture than their material interests, he wrote.

As often noted in this space, unhappy voters want change. Government as usual has produced pointless wars, unresponsive officials, and troubled leadership.

It’s not surprising that about one-fifth of Obama voters also backed Trump. Obama embodied change and Trump, an aggressive businessman with no elective history, convincingly promised it. In the end, Obama did not produce enough change and Trump abused his mandate.

Joe Biden offered calm and cooperation, but his pious hopes could produce neither. In some respects, he embodied a return to the kind of government that people wanted changed. The dangerously disorganized Afghanistan withdrawal and the endless haggling among congressional Democrats made him appear weak.

What had aided Trump’s appeal was his decisive style, even if it edged into being authoritarian. His claim to have kept his promises had a ring of truth. Even his critics would have to admit that he changed the way the federal government worked.

In effect, Trump’s presidency raised the question “What’s the matter with America?” He wanted to slash medical insurance, reduce air quality and cut taxes for the wealthiest. He let roads and bridges deteriorate. Yet he would gain the second largest popular vote of anybody who had ever run for president.

It’s possible that Trump has no deep-seated principles. Instead, he recognized voter discontent with policies ranging from affirmative action to foreign wars and managed to make it look like he had led in shaping the opposition. In reality, he exploited political and social discontent and left what many saw as uncomfortable or fringe issues to the Democrats.

While this analysis may be pure speculation, conventional wisdom may itself be nothing more than that. Cable “news” and social media spend little time reporting events and their background while leaping into instant, poorly considered analyses.

For example, the GOP gain in the Virginia governor’s race is extensively interpreted as a nationally significant rejection of the Democrats in favor of Trumpism without Trump. Little attention is paid to the Democratic candidate’s well-intentioned, but breathtakingly inept gaffes.

Maybe something was the matter with Virginia, and it wasn’t about Trump. But that’s too boring for the pundits.

Biden could benefit by asserting leadership of congressional Democrats to produce results, like the prompt post-election passage of the infrastructure bill. It means taking bold, even risky action to get them to pass voting rights and popular parts of his economic and social programs.

He should stop talking about his tough Scranton background and start acting like it.

Biden is less than one year into his presidency and already he is being written off. That’s too quick a judgment. The challenge for him in the next year is less about policy and more about leadership.

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.

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