Opinion

American democracy is in trouble, and centrist Democrats are squandering their chance to save it

They're wasting a precious congressional majority pandering to Wall Street and Republicans

Saule Omarova on Tuesday withdrew her nomination to serve as head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a federal financial regulatory agency. Republicans had conducted a classic McCarthyite smear campaign against her — implying she was a secret communist because she was born in the Soviet Union — and that was cover enough for five Democratic centrist senators to oppose her.

But the centrists weren't done yet. Next, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) said he thought President Biden's Build Back Better agenda was incomplete, throwing the reconciliation bill's fate into question once more. Then, with Jon Tester of Montana, Manchin announced he'd vote with Senate Republicans to try to repeal Biden's business vaccine mandate. That is to say, to make the pandemic worse — on purpose.

This is a combination of corruption and oblivious fecklessness so profound it becomes its own kind of extremism. The country is on fire, and even now Democratic centrists just can't stop their little penny-ante scams and cheap political gimmicks.

Corruption is the obvious explanation for the Omarova's exit. She's more than qualified for the comptroller job — as David Dayen writes at The American Prospect, she's been a top thinker on financial regulation for years, and she's not a secret Soviet. The only reason to oppose her nomination is that she'd conduct meaningful oversight of big banks, so Wall Street toadies like Tester and Democratic Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.), and John Hickenlooper (Colo.) blocked her from serving. They weren't subtle about it, either — The New York Times reports Tester and Warner "condemned [Omarova] for having opposed legislation they both supported to roll back parts of the regulations put in place by the Dodd-Frank Act in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis."

Manchin's rationale for yet again impeding the Biden agenda, meanwhile, was nonsensical. He delivered his remarks at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council Summit — not a gathering with a representative sample of hardscrabble West Virginia voters, I'll wager. There, Manchin criticized budget gimmicks Democrats have used to cut down the price of the Biden agenda at his own request. "If we're gonna pick all these things we wanna do, but one goes for three years, one goes for one year, and maybe one other one might go for the full 10 years," he said, "do they not intend for these programs to last the full 10 years? Well if they intend for that to happen, then what's the real cost?"

As usual, it's impossible to tell whether Manchin is lying, confused, parroting conventional wisdom, or all three. Regardless, this is a maddening non sequitur. His criticisms aren't even wrong, exactly, but nobody on Earth is better positioned to demand changes to the Biden agenda than he is, and he acts as though he isn't even involved with the negotiations. This showboating makes the party seem incompetent and impotent — even though its Build Back Better plan is popular.

Biden would certainly veto Senate Republicans' attempt to repeal his requirement that businesses with more than 100 employees require vaccination or weekly coronavirus tests, as well as the requirement that medical staff get vaccinated. Still, it's a remarkably stupid and irresponsible project for Tester and Manchin to support.

As I have previously argued, Republicans are doing what they always do when out of power: trying to ruin the country, then blame it on Democrats. And if Biden's sagging approval rating is any judge, this strategy is working. But that's to be expected. What shouldn't be so predictable is the panicky, counterproductive, unprincipled reaction of these most chicken-hearted members of Biden's own party. It's hard to imagine a response more idiotic or irresponsible. This isn't triangulation. It's self-sabotage of the Democratic Party — and the United States.

Neither can sustain that damage right now. At The Atlantic, Barton Gellman recently made a detailed argument that Republicans are actually better positioned to steal the 2024 election than former President Donald Trump was in 2020. Trump's coup attempt before and during Jan. 6 didn't actually use his presidential powers, Gellman wrote. The idea instead was to bully states into changing their vote totals or slates of electoral votes, and it didn't work only because a handful of state-level Republican officials refused to go along with the scheme.

Today, every Republican who refused to do Trump's bidding has been exiled from the party or is fighting for their political life. The GOP is passing flagrantly gerrymandered district maps everywhere they possibly can, including presidential battleground states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Georgia, while several Republican states have passed laws taking direct control of election administration or legalizing vehicular assault against protesters. Arizona lawmakers even considered a law allowing its legislature to overturn presidential elections entirely, and while the bill died in committee, that idea is spreading fast in conservative legal circles.

America's status as even a flawed democratic republic is hanging by a thread, yet Democratic centrists are burning up a precious congressional majority pandering to Wall Street and Republicans instead of shoring up our elections, social safety net, and pandemic response.

It's not just shortsighted. It's pathetic.

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