A couple of moderate Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are blocking a massive spending bill that would transform the social-welfare system and turbocharge green energy. Liberal Democrats, which the Washington Post recently dubbed the “mainstream” of their party, refuse to vote for a popular infrastructure bill until they get $3.5 trillion in additional spending on a wish list of progressive priorities. Forget the regular disputes between Republicans and Democrats; the escalating civil war within the Democratic Party is the political drama of the year.
Liberals think they finally have the numbers to institute the big-government activism they’ve been pitching to voters for years: more federal help with childcare, health care and family support, more benefits for low-income Americans, expanded entitlements for parents, and higher taxes on businesses and the wealthy to pay for it. With all Republicans opposed, all Democrats need to pass this one-party agenda is every member of their party to vote for it.
Manchin and Sinema say they won’t, unless the price tag shrinks. That infuriates liberal Democrats, who insist their priorities are “popular, necessary and urgent.” Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the most liberal member of the Senate, recently told the Wall Street Journal that it is “unfair and undemocratic for two people to say it’s my way or the highway.” Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who leads a group of House progressives, tweeted on October 9, “We don’t have to leave some of these popular things behind. We can do ALL of it.”
If liberal Democrats are so sure voters are solidly in their corner, they have another option besides browbeating Manchin and Sinema: Wait until after the 2022 midterm elections, when the popularity of the progressive platform will doubtless propel many more Democrats into Congress. The reason moderates such as Manchin and Sinema have de facto veto power over progressive priorities is the narrow Democratic majorities in both houses—especially the Senate. Democrats wouldn’t even control the chamber, except for an epic Republican fail that flipped both Georgia Senate seats to Democrats early this year. If Republicans had held just one of those seats, the entire progressive agenda would be dead in the water.
The progressive premise is that voters will love all the new benefits coming their way, voting even more progressives into office, which in turn will enable even more progressive government. If so, then Manchin and Sinema would become irrelevant. If Democrats were to gain three seats in the Senate, they’d have enough votes to pass legislation even if Manchin and Sinema and a third moderate, Jon Tester of Montana, voted against it. All they have to do is keep control of the House, and add a few seats to their 4-seat majority, as a safety buffer.
Window is closing on big legislation
The problem, of course, is that Democrats may be more likely to lose control of Congress than to add to their majorities in 2022. The party of a new president typically loses seats in Congress during the first midterm election, especially if the president’s approval rating is under 50%, as Biden’s is now. Democrats lost control of Congress in President Obama’s first midterm election, in 2010. Republicans lost Congress in President Trump’s sole midterm, in 2018. Voters typically express a kind of buyer’s remorse during midterms, and reclaim some political clout from the president. There’s no reason to think 2022 will be an exception. “The smart money, at this point, remains on the president’s party losing control of Congress next year,” data site fivethirtyeight predicts.
That exposes a logical disconnect in progressives’ demand that moderate Democrats lean their way and pass their agenda. If progressives are so sure voters will love a big new spending plan, they could use that as a pitch to voters heading into next year’s midterms. When voters say “hell yeah!” and expand the Dems’ Congressional majorities, progressives might be able to pack even more into their spending plan. Voter mandate, and all.
That’s not what they’re doing. What’s happening instead is a battle to salvage as much of the progressive agenda as possible, given that it will inevitably have to shrink and might not even pass. Democrats recognize that the window is closing on their chance to pass big legislation, with the opportunity gone by next year. That’s because the momentum that carries a new president into office typically fades within a year, and after that, with a midterm looming, Congress accomplishes little. As for the likely outcome of the 2022 midterms, progressives are so furious about Manchin and Sinema standing in their way now precisely because they know they may be back on the sidelines in 2023.
Voters, for their part, do support more government help with family obligations, health care and housing. And they don’t mind if taxes rise on the wealthy. But they’re also suspicious of growing government handouts and receptive to the Republican charge of a “socialist spending spree.” If voters really wanted a progressive revolution, they would have elected Bernie Sanders president, rather than Joe Biden—yet Biden and his pragmatic appeal smashed Sanders in the Democratic primaries.
If Manchin gets his way, and the $3.5 trillion spending bill shrinks to $2 trillion or less, progressives will whine about how he sabotaged a once-in-a-generation opportunity to blah blah blah. But if voters like the $2 trillion, they’ll send more Democrats to both houses next year, and progressive will get another chance at revolution in 2023. That’s what voters want, right?
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.