Talking Points

Will progressives really reject the biggest half a loaf in history?

By any standard, the $3.5 trillion budget package announced by Democrats on Tuesday is a big (bleeping) deal: Its provisions reportedly include making two years of community college free to all Americans; long-term expansion of the new $300-a-month child tax credit; expansion of Medicare to provide dental, vision and hearing benefits; continuation of pandemic-era subsidies for health insurance purchased through the Affordable Care Act; and a number of hazily defined "climate provisions." If passed, the proposal would enact a remarkable expansion of the welfare state in America — one more sign that "the era of Big Government is over" is over.

It might not be enough for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

"Many in the Squad and Squad-adjacent will vote no," an anonymous "progressive lawmaker" told CNN after the package was announced. The lawmaker called the proposal a "capitulation by progressives" who started out the process aiming for a whopping $6 trillion plan.

Now this might be a negotiating tactic — a ploy to make moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) more comfortable that a bill negotiated with the help of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is actually the "middle ground," or an effort to bump up the bottom line number just a little bit more. But it's worth taking the lawmaker seriously: Democrats have a thin margin of advantage in the House of Representatives. If only a few members peel off, the bill would be doomed. And that would suggest that progressives aren't up to the task of governance.

A study last year by researchers at Northwestern University suggests many legislators are inclined to reject "half-a-loaf" compromises that move policy closer to their preferred outcome. Why? Because they're afraid of being punished by primary voters for not getting the whole loaf. They rarely get the whole loaf, however — the result is usually gridlock, and no loaf at all.

That would be an unacceptable outcome in this case. Biden-era Democrats have operated on the theory that they must aggressively govern in a way that improves the material well-being of voters. That won't happen if progressives decide to hold out on the budget proposal. They should take the deal, then work to get more next year, and the year after that.