Liberal Democrats think they’re having a moment. They’re tying up President Biden’s legislative agenda because it doesn’t tax the rich enough or lavish adequate spending on the needy. Since Democrats have tiny majorities in both the House and Senate, a few defectors can squash Biden’s entire plan. Liberals are reveling in their leverage.
They shouldn’t be. The so-called progressive wing of the Democratic party may have enough heft to block action, as it has with the so-called bipartisan infrastructure plan. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has twice delayed a vote on the $1 trillion infrastructure bill because a handful of progressive Dems say they won’t vote for it unless both houses commit to a much bigger bill on social welfare and green energy. The Senate already passed the infrastructure bill and Biden desperately wants it. So for the moment, progressive obstructionists possess the power of no.
But progressives don’t have a mandate from voters, and they can’t make anything happen on their own. The 2020 presidential election settled this, when the unexciting centrist Joe Biden squashed firebrand progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primaries. In the general election, moderates and independents were key swing voters helping Biden oust incumbent Republican Donald Trump.
After Biden dispatched Sanders and Warren in the primaries, they campaigned for him, hoping to claim some ownership of a Biden administration, should Biden win. Now they want payback. Progressives led by Sanders in the Senate and Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington in the House are demanding that all Democrats commit to Biden’s gigantic $3.5 billion tax and spending bill, as a condition of their votes for the infrastructure bill. By linking the two bills, progressives are tying a hostage to the train tacks—the infrastructure bill—and driving the train straight toward it. They’ll only pull the brakes if Democrats commit to the massive $3.5 trillion bill at the same time.
The problem is a few Democrats don’t support another $3.5 trillion in spending, and progressives aren’t going to bully them into changing their minds. The Beltway narrative describing this Democratic infighting pits the do-gooder progressives against two evil recalcitrants, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, known collectively as Manchinema or, if you prefer, Sinemanchin. Sometimes a third conservative Democrat, Sen. John Tester of Montana, joins to make a full triumvirate of evil. But Tester is less outspoken, plus it would be awkward grafting a third name onto the Sinema-Manchin portmanteau.
Manchin has resisted $3.5 trillion in new spending since the legislation first came into focus earlier this year, calling it “fiscal insanity.” On Sept. 30 he indicated his ceiling for a spending bill is more like $1.5 trillion. Progressives are aflame. In the Senate, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) responded to Manchin’s objections with a taunt: “not fighting to save your party is insanity.” Manchin’s Senate colleague Bernie Sanders says anything less than $3.5 trillion is “unacceptable.”
These progressive Democrats are overplaying their hand, however. Here are three reasons why:
Manchin reflects voter concerns more than progressives do. Manchin’s views are hardly radical. He supports social-welfare priorities, such as a permanent expansion of the child tax credit—but wants an income cutoff. He’s willing to raise taxes on businesses and the wealthy, just not as much as progressives would. If new taxes raise more than $1.5 trillion in revenue during the next 10 years, he wants to use the surplus to pay down the $29 trillion national debt. These views align pretty closely with the moderate voters any Democratic presidential candidate needs to win in a general election. Progressives would spend and tax more, make government far bigger and worry less (or not at all) about debt and deficits.
That pitch failed in 2020 and it’s no more popular now. This will matter in the 2022 midterm elections, when Republicans will be trying to retake both houses of Congress by pinning the socialist label on Biden and his fellow Democrats. If the progressives get their way, Republicans will have an easier sell. Manchin is a counterweight pulling the party back toward the center.
Biden isn’t Sanders. The $3.5 trillion blueprint progressives are fighting for is, technically, Biden’s plan. But for Biden, it’s a starting point, not an Alamo worth defending at any cost. Biden is a negotiator, and he surely knows he’ll have to make concessions to get even some of what he wants. Unlike Sanders, Biden has never said a smaller plan is “unacceptable.” To him, a Biden-lite plan is acceptable and probably inevitable. That’s simply realistic, given that Democratic majorities are so slim, effectively giving holdouts like Manchin and Sinema veto power.
Any amount would still be a ton of spending. Let’s say Democrats have to settle for Manchin’s $1.5 trillion bill, nearly 60% less spending than progressives want. Biden would still be able to claim a transformative legislative victory akin to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s. Assuming the infrastructure bill passes along with the social-welfare bill, that’s $2.5 trillion in spending. Add in the American Rescue Plan Congress passed in March and it’s somewhere between $4 trillion and $4.5 trillion. Much of that would go toward the working-class families progressives say they’re trying to help. By way of contrast, President Trump said he supported a bipartisan infrastructure bill, yet Congress passed precisely nothing during Trump's four-year term.
In 2020, Sanders and Warren were willing to risk losing in order to go big. They lost. Progressives are once again inviting defeat—in the 2022 midterms—because they’re sure they’re right and voters will love big government, if only they can get it. They're lucky somebody like Joe Manchin is there to save them from themselves.