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

Centrist Democrats Need to Suck It Up and Negotiate

You can’t be angry at the other faction for using your own tactics against you.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

Congress’s failure to hold a vote over the bipartisan infrastructure bill last week set off a wave of media hyperventilation and whining by Democratic centrists. “This far left faction is willing to put the President’s entire agenda, including this historic bipartisan infrastructure package, at risk. They’ve put civility and bipartisan governing at risk,” raged Representative Josh Gottheimer. “Canceling the infrastructure vote,” complained Senator Kyrsten Sinema, “betrays the trust the American people have put in their elected leaders.”

The delay does nothing of the sort. It saves Democrats — all of them, moderates included — from an embarrassing debacle. And it forces the whole party to hold a negotiation that one side, the centrists, was trying to prevent.

The outpouring of emotions stems from the unusual circumstances of this negotiation. In most cases, a party’s centrists hold all the leverage, because walking away from the table with no bill is more acceptable to them than it is to more ideologically pure members. On this issue, however, the left has real leverage. Centrists care inordinately about the success of the bipartisan infrastructure deal, mainly because of its political symbolism: since their political brands are built around working with Republicans, they desperately need the infrastructure bill to be signed into law and be seen as a big deal. Progressives are fine with the bipartisan infrastructure deal, but its failure would hurt them much less than it would hurt the centrists.

That dynamic was clear to me two months ago, when I urged progressives to leverage the infrastructure bill to force centrists to support President Biden’s much larger social spending agenda. That’s what caused a handful of centrists, led by Gottheimer, to try to make their counter-ransom attempt. Their plan was to force the House to vote on infrastructure, which they assumed would pass, stripping progressives of their leverage.

The flaw in this plan was also, I think, immediately evident. Their assumption that the bill would have to pass if it came up for a vote was completely wrong. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

The Gottheimer 9 didn’t get the promise to vote on the infrastructure bill before voting on the rule. They only got a promise to vote on it by September 27. Importantly, while they have a promise to bring the bill to the floor, they have no assurance the infrastructure bill will pass. Unless large numbers of Republicans vote for it — a prospect that currently appears unlikely — the infrastructure bill will still need overwhelming support from the Democratic caucus. And getting that means making a deal with the liberals on the reconciliation bill. The negotiating dynamics haven’t changed.

What would have happened if the bill came to the floor is that liberals would have defeated it, and the entire party would have looked terrible. That’s why Nancy Pelosi never brought the bill to a vote. Gottheimer extracted a promise that was not only worthless, but had negative value.

What happens now is the situation Gottheimer was trying, unsuccessfully, to maneuver out of. The centrists have to make a deal on Biden’s Build Back Better agenda that’s large enough to satisfy liberals to vote for infrastructure.

Centrists are responding with indignation at the idea that liberals would treat them so distrustfully in the first place. “It’s a sad day for our nation when a few Members of Congress block much-needed results for the American people, not because they oppose the bill before them, but because they don’t trust members of their own party,” whines a statement from the moderate Blue Dog caucus.

Of course, the tactic of threatening to walk away to gain leverage over your fellow party members is one moderate Democrats have been using forever. They’re using it right now, in fact; a Sinema puff piece announces she is “prepared to walk away” from Biden’s agenda if she doesn’t get her way. Moderate Democrats are so used to holding all the walk away leverage that the novelty of a negotiation where the opposing side also has some leverage strikes them as an intolerable offense.

Their immediate reaction is to insist they will not, on principle, engage in any horse-trading between bills. “No member of Congress, and certainly no member of my own party, has the slightest leverage over my vote. I will do what I believe is in the best interest of my constituents and my country, and what comports with my conscience,” writes an indignant Representative Stephanie Murphy. Sinema adds, “I do not trade my vote for political favors.”

This is obviously silly. Members of Congress trade votes all the time. One reason to do that is because it’s good for your state or district. The centrists are simultaneously claiming the infrastructure bill is absolutely vital for the future of the country, but that they won’t even think about supporting elements of Biden’s domestic agenda in return for it. If the infrastructure bill is truly such a transformative and essential piece of legislation, maybe it’s worth going a few hundred billion dollars over your top line in order to ensure its passage?

Whether or not they believe this sanctimonious refusal to horse-trade, that is the reality they face. Their giant personal investment in the infrastructure bill gives liberals leverage. They’re using it. That’s politics. The centrists like to talk about the cold reality of negotiation and compromise, because those dynamics have generally worked to their advantage. At this moment, they can either stage a tantrum, or accept political reality and work within its confines.

Centrist Democrats Need to Suck It Up and Negotiate