Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

If You Think Progressives Won’t Compromise With Centrists, You Have It Backwards

Liberals are begging to negotiate with centrists.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

The impression has taken hold with many people who have moderate inclinations that the Democratic Party is split between moderate pragmatists and left-wing ideologues who refuse to compromise. “There are growing signs the Biden agenda could collapse because too many Democrats have unrealistic expectations and refuse to compromise,” opined one of those research firms that recirculates conventional wisdom for investors. Charlie Sykes, editor of the center-right Bulwark, claims progressive Democrats are “threatening to torpedo the bipartisan bill (and with it the Biden presidency) if they don’t get what they want.”

The truth of the situation at hand is almost precisely the opposite. The people who are willing to compromise and accept half a loaf are the progressives. The ones who refuse to negotiate are the centrists.

Just listen to what the progressives are saying:

“What we have said is that if there is an agreement that the president strikes on this Build Back Better agenda, we will vote for the bipartisan bill, we’re willing to negotiate,” Representative Ro Khanna said on CNN. “The president keeps begging [Senator Kyrsten Sinema], ‘Tell us what you want. Put a proposal forward’ … How do you compromise when Sinema isn’t saying anything?”

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal: “They need to tell us what they don’t agree with. And we need to be able to actually negotiate it.”

Jayapal, again: “If they don’t tell us what they want to do, which was the president’s message, and if they don’t actually negotiate on the entire bill, then we’re not going to get too close.”

Representative Jim McGovern: “I think a lot of us want to make sure we have an assurance that, in fact, there’s going to be a reconciliation bill.”

They are not making implacable demands. They are begging the centrists to simply negotiate.

The fear hanging over their position is that, once they have their bipartisan infrastructure deal in hand, some decisive number of centrist Democrats — it would take just one in the Senate or four in the House — will take their ball and go home. Nobody knows whether that would actually happen.

But the progressives are hardly imagining this possibility. Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that Sinema “has privately told colleagues she will not accept any corporate or income tax rate increases.” No other publication has matched this explosive finding, which might turn out to exaggerate her stance. On the other hand, she has not publicly denied it. Sinema also reportedly opposes both Biden’s plan to allow Medicare to negotiate prices with drug companies, and even opposes a scaled-back version designed to be less unacceptable to Big Pharma.

The entire Biden program is financed through a combination of taxing the wealthy through higher income or corporate taxes and cutting spending by negotiating lower drug prices. So if Sinema actually holds the positions indicated by these reports, she would kill Biden’s program outright. Biden’s domestic legacy is only going to be as large as its financing sources, and if Sinema opposes all those sources, the size of the bill she ultimately supports isn’t going to be $3.5 trillion or $2 trillion or $1.5 trillion, but zero.

Business lobbyists are very clearly hoping to pass to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill — which, at the insistence of Republicans, does not make any wealthy sources pay even a cent — and then kill Build Back Better. “Business groups and some Senate Republicans,” reports the Times, have “mounted an all-out drive to secure G.O.P. votes for a bipartisan infrastructure bill.”

Since Sinema is holding fundraisers with the same lobbyists who are pushing to pass infrastructure and kill Build Back Better, it seems at least possible that she is onboard with their strategy. Perhaps she just wants to scale back Biden’s plan and has some specific objections she can share in private. The problem is that she’s acting like somebody who wants to kill Biden’s program outright. Progressives can’t be blamed for suspecting a betrayal, especially when she refuses to give even the barest reassurance.

We have grown accustomed to showdowns between ideologues and pragmatists, mainly within the GOP. (This explains why refugees from the Republican Party have instinctively equated progressive negotiating positions with maximalism and centrist stances with reasonableness.)

But in this case, the progressives are begging the centrists to meet them somewhere in the middle. The centrists — really, just the tiny handful of holdouts — are refusing to negotiate, threatening to torpedo the entire Biden presidency if they don’t get exactly what they want.

One thing that has enabled their tactics to succeed is the knee-jerk assumption by people with moderate inclinations to attribute reasonableness to any self-styled centrist posture. But nothing could be less reasonable than refusing to negotiate or articulate your position.

Liberals Want to Compromise, Centrists Refuse to Negotiate