For the first time in recent memory it appears the left has the momentum in Washington. Following a Friday visit from Joe Biden where he made it clear he supported a two tier track progressives took to the Sunday shows and continued to make the case for a larger reconciliation package to be passed with the bipartisan infrastructure deal.
Joe Manchin committed to at least $1.5 trillion dollars in new spending and in fact left the door open for more. Kyrsten Sinema has decried the process as ineffective and has not committed to any level of support for the bill. Frankly, the fact is Sinema likely believed based on the rules Washington has functioned with for decades that the bipartisan bill would be voted for by itself and she would be off the hook for reconciliation and increased social spending and taxes it might bring. Especially the taxes. But instead of getting off the hook, the left flexed its power and forced her to be seen as the unreasonable one holding up progress. A label usually left for the left.
This time however, through savvy negotiation and politics, the left has left the moderates holding the unreasonable label and all the political pressure that comes with it. During the debate preceding the Affordable Care Act some 60 members of the Progressive Caucus declared they wouldn’t support the bill without a public option. However, once Joe Lieberman decided to kill the public option, the political pressure to pass something, anything, even without the public option, was just too great for the progressives to stomach. They all folded and the Affordable Care Act was passed without a public option.
For decades that has been the status of the left. Occasionally making demands, but almost always to leadership that is anything but accommodating. Bernie Sanders changed things and helped show there is real political power on the left that even moderates like Joe Biden have to take seriously, much to the chagrin of conservatives like Kyrsten Sinema. Bernie Sanders made it known that there are millions of passionate voters on the left who have to be taken seriously. He also helped organize those voters into an electoral movement that has grown and helped radicalize the Progressive Caucus. Members such as “The Squad” under the leadership of Pramila Jayapal have completely changed the political landscape.
Jayapal has worked closely with Bernie Sanders and the strategic decision to hold up the bipartisan infrastructure bill in order to pass reconciliation was made in tandem with Bernie’s negotiations in the Senate. This two-fold political strategy allowed pressure on two fronts and ensured demands made in one chamber were taken seriously in the other.
Bernie Sanders Changed Everything
The demands in general were also much larger than they would have been in a pre-Bernie Sanders era. Bernie Sanders started the negotiations at $6 trillion dollars, which was less than half of what was imagined by the package he campaigned on. A package that motivated millions of voters and almost propelled Bernie to victory as Biden and others watched politics and what is possible change before their eyes. In a very real way Bernie started the infrastructure negotiations during the campaign at a price tag of $10 trillion dollars plus. That is something Biden clearly took seriously given he allowed Bernie Sanders to surrogate his own package at Bernie’s $6 trillion dollar starting bid.
That starting bid was very important, because it was obviously cut down during negotiations, but that allowed Bernie Sanders and the progressives to frame the $3.5 trillion dollar price tag as the concession and compromise to begin with. That was only possible because Bernie Sanders ran a campaign that made his initial $6 trillion dollar proposal a compromise position from him as well. The left showed they are really able to make demands and that those demands are taken seriously. They also showed they can back those demands with real legislative power and ensure they get a fair shake in the halls of power. The political landscape has simply significantly changed since the days of the Affordable Care Act, and in such a way that the left is empowered.
Progressives have the upper hand and may have the power to force Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to raise their floor and support a bigger package and some tax increases. That might seem ridiculous given the long history of the left failing to beat the moderates in situations like this. But that was the past and this is now. Biden sided with the bigger package for a reason. Progressives had the power to kill the bill for a reason. And as long as they stick to their guns the power the movement has created may just be enough to get a bigger package across the finish line.