One of the irritating habits of centrist politicians is to evade any substantive defense of their position by focusing entirely on the need to accept political constraints, when they are responsible for those constraints. A classic example today comes from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who blames Joe Biden for running on an agenda to the left of what Congress (i.e., Sinema) is willing to vote for:
“You’re either honest or you’re not honest. So just tell the truth and be honest and deliver that which you can deliver,” Sinema said. “There’s this growing trend of people in both political parties who promise things that cannot be delivered, in order to get the short-term political gain. And I believe that it damages the long-term health of our democracy.”
It’s true that when Joe Biden runs on a promise to raise taxes on the rich and let Medicare negotiate down the price of drugs, and then fails to accomplish those things when elected, people get cynical about democracy. Sinema herself campaigned on letting Medicare negotiate drug prices, before changing her mind — but deciding, after hearing from powerful lobbyists, that you don’t want to follow through on your campaign promise is not what Sinema has in mind as an example of damaging people’s faith in democracy.
Obviously, any elected official needs to account for political reality. If Sinema wants to argue that, say, Bernie Sanders should vote for the shrunken version of Build Back Better on the grounds that it’s better than nothing, that’s a good argument. But it’s not a good defense of the people who are responsible for shrinking the bill.
Sinema’s passive-voice phrase “things that cannot be delivered” obscures her agency. Biden can’t deliver on the agenda he campaigned on not because it is inherently undeliverable, but because a handful of members of Congress, Sinema most prominent among them, refuses to deliver it.