Talking Points

Democrats finally realize the weakness of their majorities

Democratic divisions have delayed, if not defeated, President Biden's Build Back Better agenda, and it will need a Christmas miracle to pass before this year is out. Democrats simply don't have big enough majorities to pass the kind of ambitious legislation they promised the progressive base in last year's election, and they may not have majorities at all after next year.

Liberals had hoped their sprawling climate and social welfare spending package would have a price tag between $6 trillion and $10 trillion. It shrank to $3.5 trillion out of the gate, and Democratic moderates continued to whittle away until it was as low as $1.75 trillion (though the Congressional Budget Office ultimately scored it a little higher). It turns out you can't be the party of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) functionally has veto power over your legislative program. And as Manchin appears to be serious about his more conservative views, rather than merely playing for leverage or placating increasingly Republican West Virginians, this arrangement doesn't bode well for progressives.

Maybe the Biden agenda bill will never pass. Even if it does, it will likely underwhelm the left, because it will be retooled to win Manchin's approval. Resigned, congressional Democrats are responding by pivoting to voting rights, though their prospects for legislative success are only slightly better on that front.

But voting rights have one key strategic advantage over Build Back Better: They could potentially unify the Democrats and will at least allow them to blame the Republicans if the project fails. Democrats can then use the issue to galvanize minority voters in the midterm elections, where they'll need all the help they can get. If Build Back Better fails, by contrast, Democrats will have no one to blame but themselves.

A win on voting rights would be more than a feather in the party's cap, too. It will likely come at the expense of the filibuster, which might allow Democrats to get more through the 50-50 Senate. For now, however, Democrats are in a bind: Voters gave them unified control of the federal government's elected branches, but by such small margins that control is almost nominal. Build Back Better won't join the ranks of the New Deal, the Great Society, ObamaCare, or even former President Bill Clinton's 1993 tax hike unless that changes.