Opinion

The sucking political void of Democratic centrists

How do you negotiate with people who have no position?

President Biden's legacy is balanced on a knife's edge. Virtually his entire substantive agenda is contained in the Build Back Better Act, which is packaged in a reconciliation bill to get around Republican filibuster. We'll soon know whether it can pass.

The remarkable thing about the key votes on this package — Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the latter of whom increasingly seems to be the most stubborn holdout — is how they refuse to say outright what they want. This is political "centrism" as a vacuous nullity, a lidless reptilian eye ever gazing into a lightless political tomb where no truth is spoken and nothing ever happens.

Let me review some background. Since the passage of the American Rescue Plan in March, the Democratic Party has been stuck in a prolonged negotiation about how it will use its majority. First, a handful of Senate Democratic moderates insisted on negotiating an infrastructure bill with Republicans — which, to my surprise, the GOP was willing to do, almost certainly because Republicans correctly calculated it would drive a wedge deep into the Democratic coalition. The result was a dressed-up highway bill: some money for Amtrak and other mass transit and much more money to cement pollution-spewing car dependency. On balance, it's barely better than nothing.

On the other side of the wedge, distrust of moderate Democrats grew. Democratic leadership and progressive Democrats determined, once the bipartisan infrastructure bill was done, to negotiate a big reconciliation bill (to address health care, paid leave, climate change, and all other priorities) without Republican involvement. Then, the two bills would pass together so neither Democratic faction could betray the other.

After spending precious months of this Democratic-majority Congress on that deliberation, now the moderates are trying to renege on the deal, demanding the bipartisan bill be passed before they'll consider passing the reconciliation package. Realistically, they want to kill the Democratic bill. Sinema met for the third time with Biden on Tuesday, and once again neither she nor Manchin will give the president specific demands to secure their loyalty.

Other Democrats in both houses are beside themselves. "How do you compromise ... when Sinema is not saying anything?" Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) recently asked on CNN. "Our two senators need to tell us what they're for," Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich) told reporters of Sinema and Manchin. "The agreement from the beginning was that all the pieces would move together," complained Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Naturally, big business has been lobbying furiously to pass the bipartisan infrastructure plan and block the entire Biden agenda — and naturally, these are the same corporate interests that have given Sinema nearly a million dollars. As Jonathan Chait explains at New York, the main obstacle to the Biden agenda is not the dread "purity test" leftists but a couple of so-called "centrists" who are either corrupt liars, dippy drama queens, or both. Supposedly puritanical progressives Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are on essentially the same page as Biden — historically squarely in the center of his party — as are electorally vulnerable lawmakers in many centrist states. Sinema and Manchin alone won't fall in line, and they can hardly claim tough, purple-state races as their excuse.

Indeed, part the point of the reconciliation bill is to give vulnerable "frontline" Democrats a strong campaigning position next year. As Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), a lefty in a swing district, told The Washington Post's Greg Sargent, "Those are things that will immediately begin to improve the lives of Americans and will begin to immediately improve our economy."

Sinema's obstinate reticense is reminiscent of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in 2009, when he demanded the public option and Medicare expansion be removed from the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) as his price for supporting the bill. His most plausible motive was spite over being successfully primaried as a Democrat in 2006, which required Lieberman to run as an independent to keep his seat. As Ezra Klein wrote at the time in The Washington Post, "At this point, Lieberman seems primarily motivated by torturing liberals. That is to say, he seems willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score."

But Sinema and Manchin don't have primary spite as an explanation, and their "centrist" position bears no relation to the identifiable middle of the political spectrum in America. Judging by their own statements (or lack thereof), it has no substantive policy content at all. Among the policies they're apparently trying to kill is a drug pricing reform supported by nine in 10 Americans, Medicare benefit expansions that would be a godsend to Arizona's enormous senior population, and a child allowance that West Virginia's low-income parents are finding very helpful.

What Sinema in particular seems to desire is to be the center of attention. She's accruing lavish praise from the faux-savvy goofballs at Politico's Playbook and Axios for cutting down her own party's platform, and her empty grandstanding could pave the way to a cushy lobbying or consulting job when she loses office or retires. It's centrism as a compulsive need not to do things, no matter what they are or what serious problems they could resolve, so long as inaction continues to attract the cameras.

Perhaps, in the future, Democrats might consider electing politicians who actually want to achieve their party's goals.

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