Every political party that achieves power in Washington has to make a central strategic decision early on: Does it want to focus on substantive accomplishments or on perpetuating its power? Democrats who hold a fragile trifecta right now need to make that choice very soon.
To be clear, it’s not always a binary choice: Sometimes governing well is a political asset. Indeed, to hear ideologues of both the left and right tell it, pursuing their agendas (which have, of course, never been given a fair test thanks to the cowardice and venality of centrists) will definitely produce massive landslides as far as the eye can see. But true or not, in the legislative branch at least, the most vulnerable representatives facing voters universally reject the belief that loud-and-proud extremism is the ticket to reelection.
So you have the situation facing Democrats today, in which congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are trying to enact Joe Biden’s presidential agenda tout court in just two interrelated bills (the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the FY 2022 budget reconciliation package). They have no margin for error, even as progressives demand shooting the moon while centrists want to shrink, tone down, and maybe even defeat the larger and much more important of the two bills (the reconciliation package) in hopes of surviving their next election.
On the reconciliation bill, bipartisanship is not an option. So deals must be cut, sooner rather than later, to get all Democratic senators and nearly all Democratic House members on board. The reckoning in the House could come very quickly in the form of a key procedural vote next week, with Pelosi looking to hold the infrastructure bill hostage until the reconciliation bill passes, and a group of centrists pressuring her to do exactly the opposite.
Underlying this struggle is the dirty little secret of the Democratic Party: Barring something beyond anyone’s control, it is extremely unlikely that Democrats will hold onto the House, and thus their trifecta, in 2022. I won’t go through the entire explanation that I have written elsewhere, but the simple reality is that no president with job-approval ratings south of 60 percent has ever had a first midterm in which his party failed to lose House seats (indeed, a couple with job-approval ratings over 60 percent still lost House seats). In 2022, the burden of history will be augmented by Republican gains via redistricting. In part due to partisan polarization, the odds of Biden, whose own approval ratings have now slumped down into the 40s, reaching the 60s any time soon are vanishingly small.
Three of the last four presidents had terrible first midterms (the one who didn’t, George W. Bush, benefitted immeasurably from one of those events beyond anyone’s control, September 11). But here’s the silver lining: Three of the last four presidents were nonetheless reelected, with the other, Donald Trump, coming pretty close despite his heroic efforts to offend as many Americans as possible. Minimizing 2022 losses while joining the ranks of the reelected is a reasonable (and perhaps the only reasonable) strategy for Joe Biden.
What this means in terms of the current legislative choices being made by Democrats is they shouldn’t sacrifice too much to accommodate highly vulnerable House members who are probably going to lose anyway. Yes, Democrats need their votes right now, so accommodations will be necessary. But perhaps in some cases a future ambassadorship or an assistant secretary cabinet post or just a big political chit would be more appropriate than knocking a half-trillion dollars off a reconciliation bill that may wind up being the summit of the Biden presidency or the chief accomplishment of a president running for reelection in 2024. I don’t know if it will work, but the same logic should apply to Senate Democrats standing in the way of filibuster reforms necessary to enacting voting rights legislation: If there is anything within the president’s power that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema want — that does not involve obstructing or gutting crucial legislation — I am sure Democrats everywhere, most especially progressives, would love to see them fully gratified.
What Democrats do not owe to vulnerable members of Congress, however, is the opportunity to go home and campaign on the boast that they thwarted their own party’s agenda. And make no mistake, politicians fighting for survival are as principled as any other cornered animal; some would sell vials with the tears of small children denied “socialist” benefits if it produced a positive op-ed from some inflation-obsessed windbag back home in the district. They need to know that if they sabotage Joe Biden’s presidency, there will be consequences far worse than losing one election.
Even if Democratic leaders follow this advice, they will not, and should not, make their calculations public. They should still fight for every congressional seat in 2022 for multiple reasons: Minimizing losses makes recovering easier, for one thing; for another, I’m sure that if she has to hand her gavel to Kevin McCarthy in 2023, Pelosi would prefer he have to suffer from the kind of unstable and insecure majority she has endured this year. Democrats do, moreover, have a realistic shot at hanging onto the Senate next year, which could be critically important in terms of judicial confirmations if nothing else.
But as Democrats make the fateful choice between getting things done right now or making substantive concessions to add a decimal point to bad midterm odds, they should understand history will judge them harshly for a snail’s-eye view of the path ahead. The future is now, not in the imaginary paradise of a donkey triumphantly braying a victory song after defying history next year.