Man-bites-dog event: Bipartisan panel finds areas of agreement

March 01, 2024


By Christina Pazzanese | Harvard Staff Writer 
March 1, 2024

During the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan posed the question to voters: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Analysts agree the answer proved decisive in Reagan's victory. But things may be so clear cut in this election so probably will not matter as much.

That was the conclusion that emerged from a bipartisan panel of former lawmakers at an event Tuesday night at Harvard Kennedy School. Former Democratic Reps. Joe Crowley from New York and Elizabeth Esty '81 of Connecticut, and former Republican Reps. Bob Dold of Illinois and Jeff Denham from California also discussed the difficulties of getting things done in a deeply divided Congress.

Denham, who served in the House from 2011 to 2019, said voter perceptions about the economy currently are shaped more by party identification than by government reports, so there's little room for persuasion in either direction. The spring 2024 Institute of Politics fellow added that immigration and security issues will likely be more influential.

Esty agreed, saying security-related issues, including crime, immigration, and global stability, will ultimately energize voters on both sides.

"I think it's a question of how people [feel]: Who makes you feel safer? Where's there less chaos?" she said. "Because I think the economy is close enough it can be read either way, and both sides are going to spin it either way."

She also offered a possible reason why the Biden administration has had difficulty persuading many Americans — even some supporters — that the economy, which had very high inflation and other problems coming out of the pandemic shutdowns, is relatively solid today.

"The overall economy is actually very strong, remarkably strong. But you don't experience the overall economy. You experience your own economy," Esty explained. "And you can't tell people that they're better off than they feel they are. That is a losing proposition" as a politician.

Steadfast U.S. support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government in the ongoing conflict in Gaza has alienated some younger voters who oppose the war and sympathize for the Palestinians, as this week’s Michigan primary results showed. This could prove a "risk factor" for the president, Esty said, as younger voters were critical to Biden's 2020 win.

But she thinks that when faced with the choice of Trump or Biden, the anti-Trump sentiment that drove many Democrats, Independents, and some Republicans four years ago will again rule the day.

Crowley, who lost his House seat to fellow a Democrat, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in 2018, agreed that Biden's stance on Israel will have an impact on some Democratic voters. But the president still has time to scrutinize the results in Michigan, where more than 100,000 voted "uncommitted" Tuesday night. And he can make adjustments, just as New York Democrats did on immigration in order to win back the congressional seat previously held by expelled Republican Rep. George Santos in the February special election.

Asked by a College student whether bundling aid to Ukraine and Israel is the best approach to ensure such legislation passes, the panel agreed it’s a necessity that reflects the political divide in Congress and in the country about these wars and about U.S. foreign aid spending more broadly.

Foreign aid represents about 1 percent of the annual U.S. budget, but voters believe it is far larger, which puts added pressure on Congress to find a way to make legislation more palatable to both sides, said Esty.

"This is such a tiny percentage. The public is so misled about what that is, that it's really hard to make the case, which is why you end up with these bargains," she said. Given the political stalemate in the country, "That is the only way you're going to get one or the other — and I don't think we're going to get one without the other."

It's doubtful that House Speaker Mike Johnson will reverse course and put a bill to provide aid to Ukraine on the floor given the resistance he faces from far-right House Republicans, as well as the hurdles Johnson faces to pass a budget and avert a government shutdown, said Denham.

With Republicans clinging to only a six-vote majority, there's still an outside chance aid could pass through a discharge petition.

"I think that there is enough frustration there that you've got a minority of the majority that is dictating policy now," referring to the far-right members, "that some people are saying, 'Enough is enough. Either get it done or we're bringing this discharge petition and that'll force the job to get done.'"

Photo by Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer