For many Democrats, the morning after Election Day last November was met less with excitement over the prospect of a new progressive era than the relief of knowing that the Trump presidency was going to come to an end. Joe Biden offered the prospect of building a political home for Democrats and independents, and a fair share of Republicans who could not stomach being part of the cult of Donald Trump and its stolen-election shibboleth. A few years of a quiet, calm presence in the White House, and a Congress that recognized the limitations that were inherent in a 50-50 Senate seemed within our grasp.
It didn’t seem like too much to ask for, but apparently it was. Before he left town last week for meetings in Europe with foreign leaders, Joe Biden announced the “framework” for a trimmed down $1.75 trillion spending plan. One might have hoped that he had the votes this time around. Of course, if he had the votes, he would not have announced a framework; he would have announced a deal. Instead, progressives sent him packing, declining to move forward with either of the two trillion-dollar-plus initiatives that were once touted as defining his presidency.
I never thought it was going to be easy. Last March, I shook my head in wonder as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez made the talk show rounds, attacking her fellow Democrats for the timidity of their spending ambitions. Forget $3.5 trillion, or even $6 trillion, she argued. $10 trillion sounded about right to her. It was just a few years ago that a trillion dollars was a lot of money. No longer; apparently a trillion here and a trillion there no longer adds up to real money.
My problem has never been the economics of the numbers Democrats have been throwing around. After all, these are ten-year numbers. $3.5 trillion is really $350 billion a year, and even $10 trillion simply suggests that the federal government might spend as much money each year supporting American families as we do on the military. And as images of our unruly exit from Afghanistan suggested the waning of the American Century, and countries from the EU and Ukraine to Taiwan and Japan are questioning the reliability of U.S. security guarantees, it may be that the time has come to revisit the balance between the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend annually defending global alliances and energy supply lines, and domestic spending at home. Of course, that is not the debate we are having, though perhaps one of these days it will be.
It was never the Democrats’ grasp of budget math that troubled me, but rather their facility with political math. Each time I heard Bernie Sanders proclaim that he had 80% of the Senate Democratic Caucus lined up behind his $6 trillion plan, I wondered what point he was trying to make. After all, 80% of 50 Senators is 40 votes, and 40 votes in the U.S. Senate is not even enough to sustain a filibuster, much less pass anything. All he was doing was telling the world that he didn’t have the votes to pass his plan, and leaving a fair share of Democrats with the impression that he and his allies have lost touch with reality.
In the heady days before the November election, when visions of a 56-44 Senate majority danced in their heads, Democrat ambitions included ending the filibuster, packing the Supreme Court, restoring the Voting Rights Act, and funding a massive domestic program. After voters rendered their harsh verdict and gave Democrats just 6 wins among 14 competitive Senate races, Democrats – including Joe Biden, who of all people should have understood the implications of a 50-50 Senate – seemed determined to ignore the impact of the election on the viability of their spending plans.
AOC spoke a simple truth early in 2020 when she observed that in any other country, she and Joe Biden would be in different political parties. But as appealing as a parliamentary system is beginning to look these days, progressives in Congress are stuck living within a system that gives them very little leverage over Senate centrists.
Yet even as progressives have watched their spending dreams get whittled down from $10 trillion to $6 trillion to $3.5 trillion, and now to $1.75 trillion, House Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal continues to posture as though they are negotiating from strength. But other than sending Joe Biden off to Europe this week empty handed and sending Virginia voters to the polls on Tuesday increasingly concerned that Democrats in Congress are not up to the job, it is hard to understand what exactly Jayapal and her progressive colleagues imagine they are accomplishing beyond the steady deterioration of the credibility of the national Democratic Party.
Progressives prefer to ignore polling data that suggests that much of the American electorate tends to be moderate and politically centrist. According to 2020 exit polls, the progressive left constituted just 11% of the electorate, while 16% identified as “very conservative” – a term that has apparently migrated from admiration for Edmund Burke and William F. Buckley to fanatical devotion to Donald Trump.
The fact that 33% of voters placed themselves in the center in the exit poll, while fully 72% eschewed extreme labels on either side, appears to be consistent with Gallup poll numbers on political affiliation among the electorate. These numbers suggest that while the Democratic Party has tended to hold a slight edge over Republicans, the largest share of the public – roughly 40-45% – identify as Independent.
Progressives on the left and conservatives on the right have long assumed that unaligned voters – and in particular, those who choose not to vote year after year – view the world as they do. For years, traditional conservatives looked at the 45% or so of the electorate who don’t vote in presidential elections and imagined the lion’s share to be like-minded, small government folks, just waiting in the weeds for a Barry Goldwater or Pat Buchanan to run on faithful conservative principles and pledging to get government off their backs.
Progressives have viewed the electorate in much the same way, except that for them, those who fail to show up on Election Day are the beleaguered masses yearning for a government that stands up for them and provides a sweeping support system to help them build a better life. This perspective is reflected in the conviction of Congressional progressives that their proposed massive infusion of new government programs will uplift American families, and transform the politics of the nation, bringing working-class voters back into the Democrat fold.
Progressives are quick to point out that these working-class voters turned out for Obama’s promise of hope and change; he just failed to deliver the goods. Whether or not Bernie’s $6 trillion or AOC’s $10 trillion would transform the politics of the nation, however, is going to remain a theoretical proposition, as it was never going to happen in a 50-50 Senate – as Bernie Sanders’ own vote count attested.
Joe Manchin – tiring no doubt of the tactics of Democratic activists who seemed to think that running ads attacking him in his home state would force him to accede to their demands – wryly suggested last month that if progressives want to achieve their goals, the essential first step is “to elect more liberals.”
The urgency of the moment that has consumed progressives – the conviction that everything must be done right now, regardless of the realities of a 50-50 Senate – appears to reflect a fear that 50-50 may be as good as it is going to get. “Demographics as destiny,” the view that has been widely embraced among Democrats that demographic trends are necessarily going to turn the nation blue has given way to a fatalistic view that Republicans hold structural advantages in the Senate and Electoral College that will be hard to overcome.
Ruy Teixeira, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority, the 2002 book that gave rise to the demographics-as-destiny thesis, suggested in a recent essay entitled “Demography is Not Destiny” that the real problem the Democratic Party faces is one of its own making. A Senior Fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress, he criticized the party for centering its politics around its growing share of highly educated voters, even as it has turned its back on white working-class voters that remain essential to its political future.
Barack Obama’s data guru David Shor has expressed a similar concern, though his focus was on the alienation of working-class voters of all racial and ethnic groups:
“We’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue: taxes, health care, policing and even on racial issues or various measures of ‘racial resentment….So as white liberals increasingly define the party’s image and messaging, that’s going to turn off nonwhite conservative Democrats and push them against us.”
Teixeira, though, suggests that Shor’s prescription of only talking about popular issues is naive at best. He argues that changing course would require that Democrats step back from “militant identity politics” that have become central to progressive politics:
“This has resulted in branding the party as focused on, or at least distracted by, issues of little relevance to most voters’ lives. Worse, the focus has led many working-class voters to believe that, unless they subscribe to this emerging worldview and are willing to speak its language, they will be condemned as reactionary, intolerant, and racist by those who purport to represent their interests.”
Tuesday’s election in Virginia looms to be a bitter wake-up call for Democrats. A recent Washington Post poll suggests that the race is a toss-up, despite Democrats having a 6-7 point edge in voter identification among the Virginia electorate. The difference appears to be the 18-point edge that Republican Glenn Youngkin has built over Democrat Terry McAuliffe among Independents, up from 8 points a month earlier.
Should McAuliffe lose, many will be quick to point to Youngkin’s effective use of the latest GOP dog whistle surrounding the teaching of a Toni Morrison book in a Loudoun County classroom. Yet, in a race that has had significant national visibility from the outset, it will be hard not to point a finger of blame at the abject failure of Congressional Democrats to understand the constraints of the political hand they were dealt and do their job with some degree of humility rather than hubris.
Even if McAuliffe squeaks by, the notion that Democrats are shedding support nationally among independents is a big, big problem. But even a bitter wake-up call will be better than none at all. Right now, both political parties are animated by activists in their ranks, while the largest share of the electorate is looking on in horror.
David Paul is the founder and President of the Fiscal Strategies Group, a financial advisory firm specializing in municipal and project finance. Prior to forming the Fiscal Strategies Group, Dr. Paul was a Managing Director and member of the Board of Directors of Public Financial Management, Inc. Dr. Paul also served as the Vice Provost of Drexel University, and as the CEO of Mathforum.com, a mathematics and math education website and virtual community that is now part of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Dr. Paul is the author of When the Pot Boils: The decline and turnaround of Drexel University, and has published regular commentaries on politics and economics on The Huffington Post and Medium, and at appalled.blogspot.com.