This week President Biden began meeting with key Democratic members of Congress to talk them out of committing political suicide on behalf of the whole party. Progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) are threatening to sink the bipartisan infrastructure deal if House and Senate moderates don't pass another reconciliation package stuffed to capacity with most of Biden's social and economic agenda. Moderates appear to be bailing on the larger spending bill, which progressives rightly see as a betrayal. The stench of acrimony hangs in the air, as both sides drift toward a strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction.
The stakes of Biden's intervention couldn't be higher: Democrats are at risk of whiffing on a rare opportunity to pursue real progressive change, and their embarrassing, consequential failure could pave the way for former President Trump's Republican Party to regain power.
It has now been six months since Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress as well as the presidency, have enacted a significant policy into law. Nearly two months have elapsed since the Senate sent the bipartisan infrastructure framework to the House. Meanwhile, there's a 50-car pileup of problems that keeps getting worse so long as Democrats refuse to start clearing the road wreckage.
The debt ceiling needs lifting to avert global economic catastrophe and spending bills need to be agreed on. Democracy and voting rights legislation must get enacted to ward off the gathering threat of a radicalized, anti-democracy Republican Party that can no longer be trusted to accept the results of free and fair elections and whose leading intellectuals and media personalities have explicitly endorsed right-wing authoritarianism. And as America prepares to endure its second pandemic winter, another round of stimulus may be necessary to keep businesses open and people in their homes as the Delta variant burns through the unvaccinated population.
Voters are taking notice of the majority party's inexplicable inaction. Biden's approval has plummeted since mid-summer, and the Democrats' lead on the generic congressional ballot has evaporated. Americans may have a status quo bias, but they also don't respond particularly well to governments that allow pressing problems to fester for no reason while their representatives wage war with each other in the pages of Politico.
Still, it is morbidly fascinating to watch a political party implode in real time. In the summer of 2017, congressional Republicans tried repeatedly to overturn the Affordable Care Act even as their poll numbers tanked. At the time, 55 percent of Americans supported the ACA, which gained support as President Trump, already deeply unpopular, vowed to destroy it. When a handful of Senate moderates, including Susan Collins (R-Maine), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Ark.) put the kibosh on the ill-considered push to take health care away from millions of people, they were preventing their comrades from making a colossal misstep that would have all but ensured midterm losses in both the House and Senate.
There is no such silver lining here for Democrats. The party's dueling left and right flanks are standing in the way of good legislation, which is supported by public supermajorities. The 10-year, $3.5 trillion spending package currently being held hostage by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and his friends includes wildly popular priorities like expanding Medicare to include dental and vision coverage (favored by 90 percent of respondents), universal pre-K education (which boasts 84 percent support), federal investment in affordable child care (80 percent), lowering prescription drug prices through negotiation (88 percent), instituting tuition-free community college (63 percent), as well as creating paid paternal (69 percent), maternal (82 percent), and other family leave policies.
On the other end of the spectrum, 72 percent of Americans support the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that would modernize highways, bridges, and railroads across the country. These reforms will not turn America into a functional country overnight, but they would go along way toward improving the everyday lives of millions, addressing some of the most glaring holes in our social compact, and locking in policy gains that future Republican governments would have a hard time destroying. And it would be absolutely deranged to walk away from so many popular, winning reforms.
After their ACA debacle, Republicans turned their attention to the enduring project of cutting taxes on rich people and corporations, which they did by the skin of their teeth in December 2017. Democrats have no such fallback. Manchin wants to hit the "strategic pause" button on his party's agenda, but it is not clear what he would want to focus on instead, or what anyone on Team Blue could possibly do or say to spur him to action on anything at all.
Progressives are ready to dig in. My colleague Ryan Cooper argues that they should spike the infrastructure bill if perfidious moderates don't come around on infrastructure. Maybe so, but it's not clear that Manchin and other moderates like Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) prefer governing to soaking in the glow of media attention that comes with constantly opposing their colleagues. If they fold and get on board with Biden's signature priorities, they will no longer be able to routinely serenade gaggles of reporters hanging on their every word. Newspapers will no longer be willing to publish their anguished op-eds, where tortured logic leads them inexorably to recalcitrant obstruction. Maybe no one will want to go to Manchin's swanky houseboat parties anymore.
Manchin and Sinema bear a disproportionate share of the blame for how Democrats got here in the first place. Their delusional fealty to the Senate's filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to pass legislation outside of the reconciliation process, is why Biden hasn't already racked up a long series of what his predecessor liked to call "wins." Democrats would already have passed voting rights legislation and a version of the democracy-reinforcing For the People Act. The minimum wage would already be raised, immigration reform enacted, the Medicare eligibility age lowered. They would have two new Democratic colleagues from Washington, D.C., which could already be a state. The president could have the FDR-sized presidency he dreamed about, rather than the embarrassing morass of dysfunction, backbiting, and inertia that has characterized this government since March.
If there were a sane and responsible opposition party in the United States, perhaps there would be some justification for moderates and progressives to trigger mutual mayhem even if it leads to defeat next November. Instead, the Republican Party is still led by the twice-impeached Trump, whose forces are on the march everywhere, clearing out any elected Republicans at any level of government still devoted to the rule of law, and ready to return to power more violent and revenge-obsessed than ever.
If they do nothing, Democrats will be forced to run a midterm campaign focused on explaining why none of their campaign promises were fulfilled. It will be like trying to get people to come back to your restaurant after you served them nothing but tap water.
None of this has to happen, but Biden must convince his warring factions that they either win together, or they go down together. Time is running out to change public perception of this do-nothing Congress, and Democrats will have no one to blame but themselves if they fail.