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Did Schumer's self-immolation teach Democrats a lesson?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

In the end, Democrats — especially in the Senate — blew an entire year of governing by insisting on an agenda that their numbers simply couldn’t pass. The nadir of this took place almost exactly a year to the day that Joe Biden took the oath of office, as Chuck Schumer walked his caucus off the filibuster-destroying plank. Rather than look for ways to split Republicans and chalk up wins, Schumer, Biden, and Nancy Pelosi deliberately chose radical hobby-horse efforts that united Republicans, split their own party, and failed to deliver on any voter priorities.

Did they learn a lesson? Well, kinda, report Burgess Everett and Marianne Levine for Politico. Some of them have, but it’s not clear whether Democratic leadership is listening:

After two strikeouts, don’t expect Senate Democrats to immediately swing for the fences again.

There’s little appetite in the Democratic majority to publicly fall short on high-profile priorities so soon after the party’s failures to both weaken the filibuster to pass election reform and to approve President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion social spending bill. Instead, many Democrats are itching to get back to voting on bills that have plenty of GOP support, such as a new deal to fund the government or changing antitrust laws. …

In interviews with Democrats across the ideological spectrum, senators largely described wanting to put some points on the board within the confines of the chamber’s supermajority requirement. But it’s also fair to say the party is not entirely united on the path forward.

That includes the leader of the Democrats’ progressive movement, who thinks that Democrats should just continue calling losing votes to own the cons:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called Wednesday’s failed vote a “good start” and said he wanted to see more of it. He argued that the Democrats’ “current direction is failing” and the party should force votes on Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill regardless of whether it will succeed.

It’s a good start on … what, exactly?  Sanders and Biden himself clearly have been the driving force behind the progressive-or-nothing agenda in both chambers of Congress, along with House Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal. What has this strategy produced? Exactly nothing — except cratering poll numbers for Biden, who had promised voters an end to partisan chaos and a path forward on real collaborative governance. And of course, also a party split among Democrats that allowed the fractious GOP to unite against the hard-left turn of their opponents.

Amazingly, even Sanders sees this, but he apparently likes it:

“We’ve been negotiating with two senators for two months and it has gotten us nowhere, so we need a new course of action. And I think what we have got to do now is to make it clear where 48 of us stand,” Sanders said Thursday. “Right now, we are playing into Republicans’ hands by not having them vote against anything.”

If Sanders wants to keep highlighting the division within the Democrats, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy will no doubt be happy to oblige.

One might think that there won’t be any such opportunities after this to make that painfully obvious. Never fear, however, since Schumer wants to bring up the Build Back Better reconciliation bill again, after several months of failure with both Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. This is the most acute opportunity for Sanders’ strategy to unfold next, only this one won’t touch the GOP at all, as Democrats are using a reconciliation vehicle to try to pass it. They don’t need Republican votes and aren’t even bothering to negotiate for any.

In fact, Sanders and Jayapal haven’t allowed for any meaningful negotiation with Manchin or Sinema, either. Jayapal made it clear months ago, with Sanders’ endorsement, that she wouldn’t take half a loaf by removing enough programs in the bill to get to Manchin’s target ten-year spending level. Instead, Jayapal and Sanders insisted on using budget gimmickry to hide the actual ten-year costs in an attempt to bully Manchin and gaslight voters, a strategy that blew up when Republicans asked the CBO for a full ten-year score on all elements of the bill.

And doesn’t this sound familiar?

Schumer has vowed that Biden’s spending bill will come to the Senate floor at some point and his razor-thin majority will work on it until it passes with Manchin’s approval. The problem is that Democrats are starting from square one with Manchin, who said his previous negotiations with Biden are now void.

“What Build Back Better? I mean, at this point Sen. Manchin needs to sit down and get clarity about what’s got 50 votes,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is close to Biden.

In the first place, is it Manchin that needs clarity, or Biden and Schumer? Manchin has been clear that his priority is not to add to the deficit and not to spend more than $1.8 trillion over the next ten years. Democrats never gave Manchin an honest proposal that would meet that criteria, instead sandbagging him with cooked accounting and bullying him with threats, neither of which worked.

But more to the point of learning lessons, this is basically the same strategy that Schumer has employed over the past year. When the election-federalizing bill failed in late May, Schumer and Biden came back with the BBB over the summer. They spent months negotiating with Manchin in bad faith only to have Manchin get sick of the threats and walk away last month. They then went back to the elections bill despite not having gained any support for it, culminating in this week’s humiliating loss. And now Schumer wants to return to the BBB, and when that fails, he’ll return to elections again, and when that fails …

The answer to any headline with a question mark is usually no. That seems to be the case here, too, but the broader answer is that Schumer and Biden don’t have anything else to offer. They’ve put all their chips on these two bills despite not having the numbers to support their radical agenda, and their only instinct is to keep doubling down.