Today's big question: Is reconciliation dead?

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Actually, that was yesterday’s big question too. However, the fate of the Democrats’ progressive spend-o-rama has become much more acute the day after a red wave crashed across Virginia and New Jersey. Just what lesson will Democrats in Washington take from their twin disasters — if any?

The Washington Post reports that Democrats recognize the danger into which they’ve placed themselves. They’re less clear on what to do about it:

Democrats reeling from the party’s showing on Tuesday night were sharply critical of its direction and agenda — already the subject of months of infighting on Capitol Hill — concluding it threatens to devastate their efforts to hold on to the House and Senate next year much as it dragged down this year’s candidates. …

Democratic officials and strategists said that to counteract what unfolded in Virginia — strong anti-Democratic and anti-Biden energy driving the conservative base and suburban independents to vote Republican — the party needs to significantly improve its economic pitch, engage with young voters, voters of color and women under 50 far earlier and more aggressively than they have this year and renew efforts to recruit a more diverse slate of candidates.

But the first two points rely on speeding up Biden’s agenda, which has been captive to an ideological struggle between the party’s liberal and moderate wings, top Democrats said. Democratic strategists and officials said his as-yet-unfulfilled plans to enact sweeping new investments in infrastructure and the social safety net dragged down McAuliffe with working-class voters, including women, and his inability to shepherd legislation on voting rights and police reform diminished enthusiasm among young voters and voters of color.

We can call this faction the “double down” caucus. They will argue — and in fact had already begun arguing — that inaction over Joe Biden’s Build Back Better proposal is what killed Democrats. That’s a little tough to swallow, though, since Biden didn’t even float his own proposal until last Thursday, and didn’t bother to get support from any of the key players first anyway.

But even if one credits the harder-and-faster strategy, it still doesn’t address the reality of having an incompetent dilettante in the White House. Biden’s the one who botched reconciliation and infrastructure by siding with progressives in linking the two bills, and then never demonstrating leadership in any other phase of the process. Even his own proposal came down from the Biden mount without any endorsement, even as Biden promised that it would be an “agreement.”

The other approach would be to tack sharply to the center, a move which the WaPo includes as something that would “stoke[] concern”:

What’s more, the results in Virginia stoked concern that centrist Democrats might urge party leaders to pause the agenda and rethink priorities, according to a Democratic member of Congress, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid.

There’s no such thing as editorial bias. There’s no such thing as editorial bias. There’s no such thing …

Anyway, the concern is fully stoked among moderates already, Punchbowl reports this morning:

Numerous Democrats privately have told us they’re uneasy with the contours of the massive Build Better Act despite weeks of intra-party negotiations. They believe the party leadership is rushing through the final stages of these talks. Last night’s loss — or losses — won’t end Democrats’ quest to pass the massive reconciliation package, but it will certainly impact it. Pelosi and her leadership team were hoping for floor passage this week. However, Tuesday losses will give new heft to those voices that have been suggesting the speaker slow the agenda down and bring it back to the center.

Remember: After Republican Scott Brown won the late Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat in January 2010, Pelosi and party leaders still pushed Obamacare through the chamber two months later. But Pelosi had a 257-178 vote margin at that point. She only has a three-vote margin now.

Let’s say this, though: You’ll hear moderates say today that the House needs to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill immediately. The House and Senate Democratic caucuses will turn into circular firing squads. That was already happening last night. Moderates will blame progressives, and vice versa.

But know this — Sen. Joe Manchin’s wing of the Democratic Party will seem much more crowded today.

Axios’ Margaret Telev issued a similar warning, but also noted that Democrats will split on this on the same fault lines as before:

From Virginia to New Jersey to Minnesota, voters in yesterday’s off-year elections sent Democrats a warning for 2022: There could be a massive backlash to perceptions that progressives are pulling the party too far left. …

“It’s time for Democrats to stop f****** around,” a senior aide to one House moderate told Axios’ Sarah Mucha. “Show the voters we actually can govern.”

A senior aide to a New Jersey Democrat told Axios’ Alayna Treene it’s “insanely clear” the party must reorient “not on center-left or progressive goals,” but on “what gets real things done for families.”

A senior aide to another House Democratic moderate told Axios’ Hans Nichols that “it’s clear that passing a historic bipartisan infrastructure deal months ago would have energized President Biden’s numbers,” and that House progressives who stalled that vote had hurt McAuliffe.

An aide to a progressive House member told Axios’ Andrew Solender the opposite: Moderate Dems have forced too many concessions instead of going bigger on economic populism, and that has sapped enthusiasm. “If you put dog food on the shelf, don’t be mad when people won’t buy it.”

It’s still early, and the impact of last night’s embarrassments still need to sink in a little more deeply with Democrats. What should be clear, however, is that Democrats didn’t lose because of poor turnout of their voters, but because they energized Republicans to flood the zone — without Donald Trump. That didn’t happen because Democrats were somehow insufficiently radical. Doubling down might make them feel good in the moment, but it might end up costing them for another generation, just as it did in 2009.

One thing’s for sure — reconciliation is dead in its present form. It might not be salvageable in any form after this. Does anyone think that Mark Kelly or House Democrats in suburban districts will support Bernie Sanders’ agenda after watching last night’s results? They can still get the bipartisan infrastructure bill through, and now probably will do so ASAP, but that will be a case of locking the barn door after the horse has already bolted. It will fade into insignificance by the midterm elections a year from now, with the only enduring effect being the utter incompetence with which it was handled for the last three months at the White House and in Congress.

Addendum: As it did yesterday, moves like this support the argument that the only purpose Democrats see in this now is just for futile virtue-signaling: