Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
the national interest

Is the Democratic Party Giving Up Already?

Defeatism and passivity settle over Washington.

Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The Democratic Party has a lot of problems right now. Many of these problems lie outside its control: A global wave of inflation and continuing waves of coronavirus infection have prevented the recovery Joe Biden imagined when he took office last year, and the party’s slender majority gives it very narrow room to maneuver legislation through Congress.

That said, Democrats still have some room to improve their situation. They retain their congressional majority until January, and Joe Manchin has expressed his willingness to negotiate a bill to raise taxes on the rich and fund at least some new programs, including support for green energy. And yet their main response to a looming political and policy catastrophe appears to be fatalistic acceptance.

The Manchin situation is exceptionally strange. Manchin has outlined in public the contours of a deal he would accept, while privately conveying to fellow Democrats that he expects them to write a bill that meets his terms. This is an extremely counterproductive and maddening way to operate. At the same time, Democrats need to accept the world as it is and try to make the deal.

Instead, they seem to be shrugging their shoulders. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is trying to negotiate with Manchin, which is good, but everybody else seems indifferent or resigned to failure. Politico reports that Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin “laughed incredulously when asked about a last-gasp party-line bill” and said:

“I put so much time into immigration on reconciliation. It took a year of my legislative life. I have nothing to show for it. I wish Chuck well on reconciliation. I’m going to focus my legislative efforts in the 60-vote world.”

Homer Simpson once told Bart, “Son, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.” The point of that line was supposed to be that it was terrible advice, but Durbin appears to be following that idea in earnest. He worked really hard on some provisions in Build Back Better that any clear analysis would have shown from the outset never stood a serious chance of enactment. And now he’s tired of working and just wants to give up.

I’ve seen progressives express a similar exasperation. When confronted with the idea of making a deal with Manchin, they reflexively insist he can’t be bargained with. And maybe not! But the chances of a deal are not zero. There is very little to lose by trying. Even a failed effort would at least demonstrate they exhausted every possible avenue.

A similar passivity comes through in some reporting via Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell. Trying to figure out why the administration has failed to reverse the Trump tariffs, a step that would at least partially bring down prices and alleviate the worst economic threat they face, she finds:

“From my own conversations with senior officials, the answer seems to involve perceived short-term political liabilities. Politicos worried about how Republicans might portray measures such as tariff repeal (soft on China!). Democrats also feared alienating important constituencies, such as organized labor.”

The Biden administration has done an enormous amount for organized labor. Biden has steered the National Labor Relations Board in a staunchly pro-organizing direction while giving a historic public endorsement to new organizing drives at Amazon and Starbucks. These are morally and strategically correct decisions. But tariffs are an area in which the narrow interests of labor diverge from the national interest. Allowing the fear that a couple unions will complain — despite Biden’s overall record of support for labor — to prevent concrete steps to alleviate a crisis is utterly self-defeating.

The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress have been highly solicitous of the demands of their constituent interest groups. But now they are headed into a disaster. They are going to lose control of Congress without having even passed any significant social reforms. They may well be headed into a recession. An increasingly dangerous Republican Party may win control of the government without even needing to subvert the election.

None of the options are great, but simply coasting into November as if the plan might still work out is foolhardy. Democrats should instead be acting as if their party is on a course for disaster, because it is.

Is the Democratic Party Giving Up Already?