Democrats Probably Already Blew It

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In January when Democrats secured their Senate majority, it seemed as though they were on the precipice of actually doing something, potentially significant, but at the very least something. They had effectively weaponized anti-Trump sentiment and the genuine awfulness of the Trump years. They were awful, they were cruel, and they were loud about it, anything had to be better, right? That’s how millions of Americans felt, and millions more felt like actually, all things considered, maybe Joe Biden and the Democrats have some potential. Potential they could build on and win continued political victories with, but that potential has seemingly all but evaporated. 

They quickly failed to make good on that potential. Within hours of winning they walked back their $2,000  dollar check promise that their members had explicitly run on and used accounting to justify it. Maybe they actually did deliver if you add Trump’s $600 and the Biden’s administration $1,400, but this sort of accounting trick set the stage for what was to come. They delivered something, and for a second it felt like there might be more to follow. We should have taken the dynamic on display during the American Rescue Plan as a harbinger of what was to follow. Biden announced his agenda and that was followed by high approval ratings for popular proposals; however, following the rest of the year would be a process of failing to make good on those promises. 

The truly incompetent and weak willed nature of the Biden administration was soon made clear. Within days of taking office most policymakers and beltway commentators – everyone in Washington – could have told you the entire Biden agenda hung on two reconciliation bills that only require 50 votes, and basically anything else would require getting rid of the filibuster because Republicans are, by and large with few exceptions (though there are some), staunchly committed to making Biden a one term president. So there shouldn’t have been any illusions about the Democrats’ options. It was clear filibuster reform or two single bills were kind of what Democrats were working with. And very early on when they passed the American Rescue Plan while allowing the unelected Senate Parliamentarian to kill a $15 minimum wage, one of its most popular components, it was clear what track the Democrats had chosen. 

Still though, there was some hope in the reconciliation bill, if for no reason other than the devastation of COVID seemingly ushered in a new willingness to spend government money. The $1.9 trillion dollar price tag over 10 years was still almost 3 times as large as Obama’s 2008 stimulus, when times were just as dire. In the early part of the year, Bernie Sanders was talking about a potentially $10 trillion dollar plus infrastructure package, potential holdouts like Joe Manchin sat at $4 trillion but still wanted something significant. The very early days of what those reconciliation bills might look like left room for some hope. Democrats seemed to see the moment as requiring massive spending at the very least, if not significant political action and organizing. All the while the press bolstered this image by likening the administration’s aims with that of FDR and LBJ. 

The meandering debate which brought the bill’s total price tag down from $6 trillion, to $3.5 trillion, to now $1.75 trillion with holdouts still remaining, gutted the bill almost entirely and killed meaningful programs from family leave to free community college and expanded Medicare programs. The public debate saw the press laundering  Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema concerns as if they were reasonable, Biden failed to argue for the bill that was supposedly his agenda and the reason the public had voted for the Democrats in the first place. Even so, the way the bill was cut down had left room at every stage of the process – until just weeks ago – that something significant was on the horizon. Until Biden gave in to the whims of Manchin and Sinema and agreed to a $1.5 trillion dollar framework, the bill had the promise of offering something for everyone, totaling up to a significant bill that would touch almost every person in this country. And that’s not to mention that the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill makes all of this potentially a moot discussion, because it might not happen.

Democrats Need to Deliver

Regardless, Democrats need to deliver and it needs to be big. To their credit the American Rescue Plan was big enough and direct enough, with the stimulus and child tax credit, that it was a credible step one. They delivered something, not enough, but something that they could credibly build on. They chose their path when many in the Senate made it clear they were not touching the filibuster, so the reconciliation bill remained. That was the Democrats one, maybe two chances, to prove to the American people that they could deliver tangible material change. Their entire claim to power depends on delivering that change. 

With the Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races both moving 10+ points to Republicans, it appears the voters are no longer counting on that change. No matter how you cut it, Democrats lost enthusiasm and votes that brought them to power in 2018 and 2020. The future of the Biden administration and Democratic control of government, depended on those votes and enthusiasm. Without it, 2022 and potentially 2024 will be a bloodbath. And from the early indications that we do have, it’s not looking good for Democrats. 

In 2020, Democrats won because they were willing to promise tangible material change to people. There was obviously also a decidedly anti-Trump vote. But young voters, voters of color, and even older voters all broke for Biden in a meaningful way, and the promise of a government that might actually deliver for them was a big part of that. We saw that trend continue on November 2nd, with progressives and socialist candidates out performing their middle of the road counterparts. Don’t make too much of it, but maybe there’s a reason Phil Murphy barely held on when he called in Bernie to campaign for him while Terry McAuliffe relied on Kamala Harris and Barack Obama. The promise of material change excites people. 

That’s why a more substantial version of the reconciliation bill was and remains imperative to Democrats political future. Specifically, the larger version allows for more policy changes that actually impact people’s lives. It seems like a forgone conclusion at this point that the smaller version is all we’ll get, if anything, but it’s still worth discussing what could have been in the hopes that it still could be. Older voters will tangibly benefit if the Medicare eligibility age is reduced to 60 years old, likewise they will benefit if dental, vision, and hearing are all covered, as opposed to just hearing with no change in eligibility age as stands in the current bill. Young voters will benefit from free community college. Working families benefit from a sturdier child tax credit, free universal pre-k, and paid family and parental leave. The promise of actually delivering for people is what got Democrats elected. But that promise is not upheld by the current iteration of the reconciliation bill and it won’t be fulfilled unless they return to a more substantial framework. 

Don’t Learn The Wrong Lessons From 2021

That’s exactly what Democrats should do in the face of their defeat in 2021. It’s worth noting that the loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial election and near defeat in New Jersey, frankly spell disaster for 2022 and perhaps 2024.  The enthusiasm which brought Democrats victory in 2018 and 2020 is gone. Replaced with frustration and a clear turn toward Republicans as an “anything but this” vote from voters who were on their side just months ago. There is still time to regain that enthusiasm but Democrats have to take the right lessons from 2021 and not retreat into the comfortable centrism they so often cling to after losing elections. 

There are some who want to blame the left, blame progressives, for what happened in Virginia and elsewhere. The narrative is basically some version of progressives prevented anything from getting done, specifically the bipartisan infrastructure package (which has now passed), or a more general complaint that the left has successfully dragged Biden too far in their direction, leading to defeat. 

The two are obviously wrapped up in each other, but both implicitly recommend a course of action that is actually exactly the opposite of what Democrats should do. These criticisms are based on a notion of politics that harkens back to the Clinton years and should have died with Obama’s first term. These people will say with a straight face that voters are discontent with change, that doing too much too quickly scares them and pushes them to Republicans. These are the same political instincts that led people like Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin to beat down the reconciliation bill to begin with. Similar arguments were trotted out in 2020, claiming ‘defund the police’ was far too radical and alienated important voters, leading to losses in the House and a narrower margin everywhere. 

Progressives and the left didn’t respond to that criticism by further embracing ‘defund’ as an idea or movement, and in fact some seemed to implicitly buy into the logic of the critique. Thankfully, although it’s early, progressives have seemingly started to make the argument that 2021 losses are solely on the backs of the moderates who failed to deliver. That is exactly the argument progressives should be making. Passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill takes the wind out of the arguments sails a little bit, but it’s still important to make it clear, that bill wouldn’t have saved this swing, but a bigger reconciliation package, the Build Back Better bill, might have.

Bernie Sanders emboldened millions of voters and almost won the primary because he offered a compelling vision of material change. Progressives as a whole campaigned on a like message and to the extent Joe Biden accepted that message and tried to accommodate that change, people came to expect something from Biden. The backdrop of progressive demands since 2018 has breathed new life into the left of the Democratic Party. The fact that just months ago $6 trillion dollars in spending was seriously discussed, speaks to that fact. But that backdrop is losing its luster and will continue to if Democrats don’t actually deliver. 

It’s important to note, they still have a chance, and that is still possible. But it’ll require the commanding heights of the party to take seriously the idea that the real problem isn’t doing too much, but actually doing basically nothing at all. 

This means reckoning with how months of negotiations have brought the reconciliation package from something potentially transformational to something that will likely frustrate more positive change than it creates. This means playing hardball politics with the center and buying into the progressive’s line that the Democrats campaigned on delivering something and now they better do it, or more losses will follow. And all of that requires some self-assurance that progressives haven’t always had but might actually be able to muster in the era of Pramilla Jayapal and Bernie Sanders. It will also require Joe Biden give in to that self-assurance, and to be fair he’s been more willing to side with the left than I would have anticipated going into his presidency, but not enough that it’s a surefire thing he won’t retreat to the center after deciding 2021 loses demands it. 

That’s a big ask from someone with a career like Joe Biden’s. And even more so if you expect someone like Nancy Pelosi to get on board as well. But in my opinion it’s the only way Democrats can make up the ground 2021 clearly shows they’ve lost, and maybe have a chance at maintaining their majorities. That almost seems like a forgone conclusion, but to be as fair as possible it seems worth pointing out again, that it doesn’t have to be. Democrats can choose to deliver. Democrats can choose to side with the more ambitious energy in the party that built the left meaningful power. They probably won’t, but if they want to win, they better.

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