Democrats Are Still Misreading Political Reality
The electorate never craved a transformative New Deal-style agenda.
You know that old tale about the guy stranded on a rooftop during a flood who beseeches God to rescue him? A neighbor in a rowboat comes and offers to rescue him. “No, I’ve asked God to save me,” the man says. Then a police boat makes the same offer, and he gives the same reply. Finally, a helicopter arrives, same response.
The flood claims the man and, when he gets to heaven, he berates the Almighty: “I had faith in you, but you didn’t save me. You let me drown. Why?”
God says: “What are you talking about? I sent two boats and a helicopter for you. What more do you want?”
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia may not be on a rescue mission from God, but the Democrats would be wise to see him that way.
On Sunday, Manchin told Fox News’ Bret Baier that he was a no vote on President Biden’s Build Back Better plan. The response from the White House and Democrats was one of poorly contained fury and unbridled panic. It was a blow to the future of “democracy” and the death of Biden’s domestic agenda and perhaps his presidency.
A lot of this outrage is premised on the same misreading of political reality that led the Democrats to push the plan in the first place.
When Biden was elected, the Democrats gained only one Senate seat and the GOP was expected to retain control of the Senate. But Donald Trump’s meddling in two Georgia run-offs handed two seats and nominal control of a tied Senate to the Democrats. And yet, pressure from progressives and bizarre advice from some historians convinced Biden that the electorate craved a New Deal-style “transformative” agenda.
“This agenda,” Biden said last month, “the agenda that’s in these bills, is what 81 million people voted for.”
Big, if true.
A far more plausible take: Many people simply voted against Trump, or for a more competent approach to the pandemic or less drama from Washington or just because they’re Democrats who would have voted for any Democrat. But Biden decided to govern as if the political winds were a gale at his back.
If it were true that Americans were hungry for a new New Deal, Biden would have had coattails because the New Deal wasn’t just popular according to some carefully worded polls. FDR’s party gained 97 seats in the House and 11 in the Senate in 1932. In 2020, no Republican incumbent lost in the House (the Democrats lost 13 seats) and, pre-Georgia, the GOP lost only one Senate seat. That’s no groundswell.
It’s funny, the same folks furious at Manchin keep saying that one senator from West Virginia shouldn’t have the power to block Biden’s transformative agenda also implicitly think that winning two Georgia seats validates that agenda. More importantly, Manchin wasn’t one senator standing athwart Build Back Better, he was the 51st senator. Throw in Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, and it’s 52 senators against, 48 for. So much for majoritarianism.
Biden is a victim of surely one of the worst messaging screw-ups in recent political history. He got $1.9 trillion in spending at the beginning of his presidency for COVID relief. He successfully managed to do what Trump couldn’t—pass a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, with bipartisan support. Over $3 trillion in spending—nearly twice the Obama stimulus and Obamacare price tags, combined—is plenty for your first year in office. Biden could have—and should have—declared victory and swiftly pivoted to centrist initiatives and rhetoric that would help Democrats hold on to moderates and independents in the 2022 midterms. Instead, he opted to pander to the slice of the Democratic base that opposed him in the primaries.
Now, by the standards he and congressional leaders set for themselves, he’s got a disaster on his hands. The House Democrats he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi cajoled into voting for BBB will now have to defend their votes for a bill that was too radical and expensive to pass the Senate, at least according to their Republican opponents.
Even now, the Democrats are still misreading political reality. The defeat of Build Back Better needn’t be the disaster they are making it out to be. The defeat of healthcare reform (led by Hillary Clinton) in 1993 didn’t grease the skids for Bob Dole winning the presidency in 1996. Instead, that policy failure—along with the 1994 midterms—prompted Bill Clinton to drag his party back to the center. The 2022 midterms are shaping up to be a Republican tsunami, but Biden has plenty of opportunities to avoid drowning in it. After all, that’s why God sent him Joe Manchin.