Fall Guys

President Joe Biden practically begged a group of moderate Democrats visiting him in the Oval Office Wednesday to say how much money they are willing to spend on the massive “Build Back Better” reconciliation bill making its way through Congress. According to Politico‘s Playbook, he didn’t get an answer.

The 11 moderates, including Senator Joe Manchin and congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, insisted that Democrats agree first on how much revenue they will raise in taxes before settling on a price tag on a bill that would transform energy, health care, higher education, pre-K, and paid leave. A disappointed Biden assigned the moderates homework: Come up with something that will stop Progressive House members from killing the separate, $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that already has passed the Senate and is scheduled for a September 27 House vote.

Best of luck. In another meeting Wednesday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, pulled a Wendy Sherman and broke into tears while pleading that the reconciliation bill include an immigration amnesty (the Senate parliamentarian has said it can’t). Jayapal urged Biden to delay Monday’s vote or be prepared for Progressives to nix the infrastructure deal. Biden didn’t give in, but he did leave open the possibility that the vote won’t take place on September 27 as planned.

Yet any postponement would create new problems for the White House. House moderates have pledged to sink the reconciliation bill if they don’t get to vote for infrastructure first. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can afford to lose only three votes. And the Senate is tied, with Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema still cagey about what they want to do. And oh, by the way, Congress needs to fund the government before September 30 and raise the debt ceiling before mid-October. Is your head hurting yet?

Democrats have run smack into political reality, and it isn’t pretty. They spent months convincing themselves that a presidential election decided by 42,000 votes in three states, a tied Senate, and a 220-212 House (with 3 vacancies) is the same as FDR’s and LBJ’s supermajorities. Now they are just figuring out that the coalition that put them into office doesn’t agree on much of anything besides the idea that Donald Trump shouldn’t be in the White House.

Now the autumn of 2021 is turning into a reckoning for a Democratic Party that wanted to leverage a squeaker election into fundamental change. Like their predecessors in 1993 and in 2009, frontline House Democrats have to decide whether supporting a liberal agenda is worse for their careers than denying a president of their own party a legislative win. Either way, they lose.

Chance, guile, and missteps put the Democrats in this position. They hardly could believe their luck when Trump’s sour grapes cost the GOP two winnable seats in Georgia and handed Vice President Harris the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. What they forgot was that full control of government is a mixed blessing: Your partisans expect the sun, moon, and stars, while independents have no one else to blame when things go wrong. A Republican Senate might have given Biden a foil, and a reason to govern as the centrist he pretended to be during the campaign. Instead, he has no wiggle room. Thanks, Trump.

GOP leader Mitch McConnell made two decisions that complicated things further. First, he okayed Republican involvement in Senate infrastructure negotiations. Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute (where I work) writes that GOP participation began “as an effort to turn down the temperature on the filibuster, then after a while it seemed like it might actually have enough votes to pass, and at that point it became clear that it could also further divide the Democrats.” Senate passage of the deal heightened the contradictions within the House Democratic caucus and guaranteed unified Republican opposition to the reconciliation bill.

Second, McConnell got his conference to agree that any increase in the debt ceiling should come from Democratic votes alone. Democrats from swing districts and purple states have to own their party’s spending binge. It’s a subtle and somewhat cynical move (Republicans add to the debt, too). But it’s also politically shrewd. Nor is the economy really in jeopardy. This isn’t 2011. In the end, Democrats can and will raise the debt ceiling themselves.

President Biden’s degraded political standing is behind the Democrats’ troubles. Biden’s mixed messaging and missteps in the pandemic, the crisis on the border, the rise in crime and inflation, and the debacle in Afghanistan have caused his approval rating to plummet. He’s at 46 percent approval in the FiveThirtyEight polling average. Gallup has him at 43 percent approval—and at just 37 percent among independents. In bellwether Iowa, he’s at 31 percent. Progressives in ultraviolet districts can ignore these numbers. Moderate Democrats cannot.

Still, a weak president and disunited Congress may not be enough to guarantee the collapse of the Build Back Better program. Democrats recognize the need for a win, no matter how small. They assume it’s the only way for Biden to make up lost ground and prevent a Republican takeover of the House, and possibly the Senate, in 2022. But presidential priorities have fallen apart before. Trump didn’t get Obamacare repeal, Obama didn’t get cap and trade, and George W. Bush didn’t get Social Security reform. Biden already got the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan. That might be it.

What’s worse—abject failure or unpopular success? Trick question: Both options are horrible. If Democrats think this fall is bad, just wait until they have to live through the next one.

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