Joe Biden’s inaugural promise was to bring bipartisanship back to Washington, D.C. But after the past couple of weeks, that goal regrettably seems more out of reach than ever—and that puts the Democrats in political peril heading into the 2022 midterms.
There was initial optimism for a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure, which quickly eroded based on conditions set forth by the Democratic leadership. President Biden successfully engaged a group of bi-partisan Senators on a framework for a $1.2 trillion plan to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, which seemed to have a real chance of being passed as legislation. However, almost immediately after reaching the agreement, President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer pulled a maneuver that will likely upend the bipartisan talks.
Democratic leadership announced that they would condition the bipartisan infrastructure bill’s success on the passage of the rest of their $4 trillion “family infrastructure” agenda. This would involve Schumer and Pelosi passing these priorities as a budget resolution before the August recess through the reconciliation process and holding off on advancing the bi-partisan infrastructure bill until that happens.
This maneuver is a disappointing development, and a clear step in the wrong direction. Further, it will likely damage President Biden’s chances of passing the bipartisan infrastructure deal and undermine the president’s ability to engage in successful bi-partisan negotiations in the future.
Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the 11 Republicans who had signed onto the original bipartisan infrastructure plan, indicated in an interview to POLITICO that he would now no longer support the deal. “Dems are being told you can’t get your bipartisan work product passed unless you sign on to what the left wants, and I’m not playing that game,” Graham said.
In addition to being underhanded, the Democratic leadership’s maneuver is flawed and unlikely to work. Moderate Democratic Senators—Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—are highly unlikely to vote for the “family infrastructure” reconciliation bills, which would leave Biden and the Democratic leadership with nothing.
Feeling the ire from the right and center, President Biden released a statement soon after on Saturday, June 26th stating that it was ‘not his intent’ to imply a veto for the bipartisan package and promised to aggressively promote its passage. Since then, Biden has embarked on a cross-country tour to campaign for its passage. However, in the process of appeasing Republicans and moderates, Biden has angered progressives who are depending on the passage of the second, partisan infrastructure bill.
To be sure, Senators Manchin and Sinema have been the only Democratic senators who are blocking the party from bypassing bipartisanship entirely in pursuit of a sweeping progressive agenda—a move that would put the party in clear political peril in the 2022 midterms.
While many Democrats have often felt exasperated over Senator Manchin’s positions—namely his refusal to support ending the filibuster, which has effectively killed the party’s chances of passing any sweeping progressive social reforms—Manchin is actually saving the Democrats from themselves politically.
As David Leonhardt wrote recently for The Washington Post, Joe Manchin answers to a working-class constituency in West Virginia that is in many ways a microcosm for national working-class voters as a whole. As Leonhardt notes, these voters tend to be culturally conservative and economically progressive. This is the precise ideological approach Democrats should consider in order to cut their losses among key voting blocs in 2022.
A post-election analysis conducted by The Third Way, The Collective, and Latino Victory concluded that the Democrats’ focus on progressive causes like “Defund the Police”—taken together with the party’s lack of an economic message—led to losses among Black, Latino, and Asian-American Voters in 2020. To that end, the Democrats’ messaging failures enabled the G.O.P. to effectively label all Democrats as “radicals” and “socialists,” which hurt down-ballot candidates in key races.
Thus, a failure to be incremental and bipartisan now—along with focusing on progressive wish-list priorities at the expense of economic priorities—could put Democrats at grave risk of having the worst potential impact of the audit realized in 2020, with a loss of control of the government.
The audit also found that the party’s assumptions regarding support for progressive causes among voters of color—along with the lack of differentiation in the party’s messaging and outreach with these groups—weakened Democrats’ position with these voters.
The report cites an unnamed major Democratic funder who aptly summarizes the party’s 2020 missteps:
“The primary problem with Defund [the Police] was not Defund, but the lack of an economic message. We became the party of shutting down the economy, the party of wearing masks, the party of taking kids out of school—not the party of solutions and science.”
To that end, it is clear that President Biden and the Democrats are making a political and substantive mistake with their latest legislative maneuver on infrastructure. The individual progressive initiatives in their “family infrastructure” package should have been considered on an issue-by-issue basis in a bi-partisan way—not rammed through without any negotiation or Republican support.
To be sure, bipartisanship is possible in this Congress. The bipartisan bill passed earlier this month—which invested a quarter-trillion dollars on research and development to strengthen our competitiveness against China—was passed on a 68-32 vote in the Senate.
The best way the Biden Administration and Democratic congressional leaders could have built on this legislation was through a standalone infrastructure package—rather than the linkage maneuver that the Democrats are pulling, again kowtowing to the left.
The party’s approach to the For the People Act, which was dead on arrival in the Senate this week and received no Republican support, was similarly flawed. Senator Joe Manchin opposed the original For the People Act for, among other things, the bill’s failure to be bipartisan.
“We should not pass any type of a voter bill in the most divisive time of our life unless you have some unity on this thing, because you just divide the country further,” Manchin wrote earlier this month. This is the precise approach Democrats should heed going forward.
Ultimately, the Democrats’ failure to be incremental and bipartisan now—along with a failure to focus on economic priorities—could put Democrats in the minority and Congress in 2022, and could also make a Republican victory in the 2024 presidential election much more likely.