Great question … delivered almost a full year too late. All presidents tend to overreach and to overthink their mandates in the opening months of a term, but Joe Biden got elected with the smallest of congressional majorities in one of the closest presidential elections in a generation. Rather than look for ways to leverage his claimed ability to work across the aisle, Biden set out to craft an even more ambitious agenda than Barack Obama did in remaking the entire economy.
Now, Obama’s wingman David Axelrod gently nudges Biden and progressives in a New York Times essay toward the reality of math. He means it both literally and senatorially in relation to Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and other “moderates.” That’s news in itself:
For months, Mr. Biden has been trying to balance the expansive social and climate agendas of progressives with the reticence of Mr. Manchin, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and other moderate Democrats.
Are there other moderates in this equation? Progressives have made Manchin and to a slightly lesser degree Sinema their betes noires for the failures of their agenda. However, there have long been rumors that as many as a half-dozen Senate Democrats won’t get on board the reconciliation spend-o-rama now called Build Back Better, but have kept a low profile and allowed Manchin to front the dissent. That benefits Manchin to some extent in West Virginia, but it also allowed Biden and progressives to target him with relentless personal attacks over the past month — hardly a pleasant experience.
Axelrod’s tied into the Democratic establishment well enough to get an insider’s view of the lay of the land. What other “moderates” held out besides Sinema and Manchin? I’d put bets on Mark Kelly and Catherine Cortez Masto, both interior West incumbents facing a very difficult re-elect environment next November. Maggie Hassan might be another in New Hampshire, and perhaps Jon Tester, even though he’s still a few years away from another re-elect bid in deep-red Montana. If even half of these are quietly opposing BBB, then the math issue is even more acute.
Rather than acknowledge math, Axelrod scolds Biden and his allies for dishonestly cooking it:
Mr. Biden and congressional leaders tried to thread the needle by halving the size of his Build Back Better proposal while including pieces of as many of his original plans as possible, funded in shorter increments. The theory was that the popularity of these programs would compel future Congresses to continue them.
Pointing to the national debt, Mr. Manchin has called this gimmickry and publicly insisted that to get his vote, the president and Democrats would have to choose fewer priorities, do more to focus benefits according to economic need and fund them for longer. …
But the math is the math. In a 50-50 Senate and an evenly divided House, there are obvious limits to what can be achieved. Even Roosevelt took years to enact the New Deal.
To paraphrase F.D.R., it’s time for a rendezvous with reality, and fight for what is possible.
Ahem. Perhaps Axelrod just wants to be kind, but it’s long past time for a rendezvous with reality. This sounds a bit like Megan McArdle’s claim that timing is what robbed Biden of a chance at greatness through expansive social engineering and other policy changes, a la FDR, LBJ, or Ronald Reagan. It was math, not timing, as I explained at the time:
How did FDR and LBJ get their legislative agendas through Congress? They had the numbers in both chambers to do so:
- 1933 Congress: House 322/102 Dems, Senate 70/23 Dems
- 1963 Congress: House 295/140 Dems, Senate 68/32 Dems
- 1981 Congress (Reagan): House 269/164 Dems, Senate 54/46 GOP
Both FDR and LBJ had massive majorities in both chambers, enough to slam through nearly any policies they desired. Reagan had a more difficult environment in 1981, but he did have firm control of the Senate, which gave him some leverage over the House. His survival of a 1981 assassination attempt made Reagan even more popular, which also helped in pushing through his agenda, as well as a less ideological partisan framework in that era (regionality still mattered then, and the Blue Dogs were a significant factor in both chambers).
In contrast, Biden came into office with a 50/50 Senate, nearly a 50/50 House, and as the first president in long memory to win a first term while his party lost seats in the House.
If Axelrod’s correct about there being more opposition within Biden’s own caucus to BBB, then the strategy here becomes even more inexplicable. Biden and Chuck Schumer must have assumed they could steamroll moderates, but why — especially moderates from purple-to-red states?
Nevertheless, Axe is right about a couple of points. One, the advice to settle for what can get 50 votes in the caucus and declare victory may be loooong overdue, but it’s still good. But two, it’s probably way too late for it to help Biden or Democrats politically, especially since progressives will end up declaring it a horrific disaster:
Given the makeup of the Congress, and the frayed bonds of trust among his fractious caucuses, there is no assurance that Mr. Biden can revive the Build Back Better Act, as Mr. Obama did the A.C.A. Nor would its revival necessarily help Democrats avoid a midterm wipeout next fall given the continuing concerns over inflation and the fact that incumbent parties almost always suffer losses two years after winning the White House.
The A.C.A. was no shield for Mr. Obama and Democrats in 2010. But if, through a retooled Build Back Better Act, Mr. Biden can achieve significant and durable progress on some major priorities that will benefit children and families for generations, Democrats would be wise to celebrate and tout those gains instead of complaining about what wasn’t possible.
Needless to say, this was obviously true about the one bill that Biden did manage to pass with bipartisan support — the infrastructure bill, or BIF as it later got termed. That was such an obvious momentum builder for Biden that his progressive allies hijacked it for four months and refused to advance it until the BBB passed. After the shocking losses in November’s elections, progressives finally relented while decrying the decoupling as a major loss, and then the later predictable failure of BBB as some sort of betrayal by Manchin. Even Biden’s one big win turned into a complete political disaster.
This is a caucus that has elevated snatching defeat from the jaws of victory to a performance art form. They won’t take any part of Axelrod’s advice, let alone the implied notion of survival through some sort of consensus unity between the party’s two wings. By the time Democrats and the White House recognize the basic political wisdom in Axelrod’s essay, it will be 2023. At least.