I’ll insert the standard disclaimer: Jon Chait is a mixed bag. But I think he’s onto something in a column published today about how President Biden and the Democratic Party’s agenda and brand have been squeezed by competing factions within the party. He says there’s still time to set things right before the 2022 and 2024 cycles but warns that time is running short.
The column outlines the list of intraparty grievances, e.g., centrist claims that leftwing slogans like “Defund the Police” hurt the party, countered by leftwing claims that focusing on swing voter concerns alienates the party’s activists. (IMO, there’s some truth to all of these claims because it’s a big, complex country and a big, complex political tent.)
Chait claims the “popularism” strategy (i.e., focus on popular agenda items and don’t talk about policy that doesn’t have broad support) prevails in the Biden White House. I think that’s probably true; it prevailed in the Obama White House too. The problem is that Democratic centrists have settled on creating the (bogus, FWIW) perception that they’re budget hawks as the sole flex that separates them from the progressive wing, and they’ve targeted the popular (and paid for!) programs:
One recent poll asked voters to identify the features of the Build Back Better plan that most appealed to them. The top five were, in order, adding dental and vision benefits to Medicare, home health care for the elderly and disabled, letting Medicare negotiate prescription-drug prices, Medicare coverage for hearing, and free community college. Democratic centrists in the Senate eliminated three of them from the bill completely and gutted a fourth. “Bizarrely,” observed Democratic pollster William Jordan in September, “the parts of Biden’s agenda that are most popular seem to be most at risk right now.”
The article, which is long, acknowledges the battalions of lobbyists armed with suitcases full of cash that accompany these displays of “fiscal responsibility,” which cannot be discounted as a central culprit. But Chait also makes the point that media coverage of figures like Manchin and Sinema so internalize the “view from the C-suite” that they can’t even treat the finance industry, the pharma lobby, etc., as the special interests they are.
Instead, the Beltway media portray strapped college students, poor single moms, people who are dependent on insulin, etc., as “specialist interests” whom these centrists nobly stiff-arm in the name of prudence:
Embattled Democrats have not staged any high-profile gestures to distance themselves from their party on policing, abortion, or guns. Manchin is not walking around toting copies of the lesser-known offensive editions of Dr. Seuss. Instead, moderate Democrats, noted Politico, “tout the Chamber’s backing to bolster their bipartisan cred in swing districts.” While Fox News is blaring constant coverage of cancellations in elite liberal milieus, centrist Democrats focus on blocking the cancellation of billionaire tax loopholes. The Chamber of Commerce has filled a vacuum where the shaping of a culturally moderate wing of the Democratic Party ought to exist.
An Axios story praised Sinema for defying the “woke politics” of her liberal colleagues. Woke has long since escaped its origins in the social-justice left to become a pejorative term that stands for a set of social and cultural norms. But what Sinema has broken away from is not any social-liberal shibboleths but the party’s traditional working-class agenda.
The irony is that the BBB plan as originally outlined was far more fiscally prudent than the infrastructure bill centrists Democrats were so keen to pass. In concept, BBB was paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy, going after tax cheats and empowering Medicare to negotiate for pharmaceuticals. But the party’s centrists have branded the bill as leftwing “entitlement” overreach, and they’re trying like hell to strip out all the means to pay for it.
We’ll see what happens. I’m more optimistic than I was that something will pass. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that the brand of “centrism” on display at the rightward edge of the Democratic caucus isn’t aligned with the “conservatism” espoused by the majority of those pols’ constituents. At all.