Dems’ Come-to-Jesus Moment

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
September 16, 2021

Over the last four or five decades, the Democratic Party has grown increasingly secular. Some seem to be exceedingly uncomfortable with even the mention of religion or religious values. Perhaps this is one reason why small-town and rural America has become a “no-fly zone” for the party. Given that the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College give disproportionate weight to states with smaller populations, Democrats will need to learn how to deal with the kind of people who do not live in cities or closer-in suburbs—and maybe wonder why the species of centrist Democrat that Sen. Joe Manchin belongs to is on the verge of extinction.

Sources close to the negotiations around the reconciliation bill say that the West Virginian would like to see something closer to $2.7 trillion in total new spending ($1.2 trillion for the hard infrastructure bill plus $1.5 trillion for the reconciliation measure). Including infrastructure, progressives are looking for more like $4.7 trillion total, assuming a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. The sweet spot in between might look something like $3 trillion to $3.5 trillion. This is where progressives and the leadership must have, as we used to say in the South, a “come to Jesus moment,” a time to look down into their own souls and consider what is really important.

Are progressives and the Democratic Party better off if they swallow hard and accept a $1.5 trillion total, or would they rather have zippo, which effectively is the alternative? For progressives, a thinner package would certainly be a bitter pill to swallow, having so recently entertained grand dreams of another New Deal or Great Society, initiatives addressing many of the party’s long-sought-after programs.

Such dreams were always unrealistic, for two reasons.

First, Democrats hold the White House and majorities in Congress by the thinnest of margins. The presidential race came down to 125,084 votes spread across Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. A flip of just 62,543 votes and Donald Trump would now be eight months into a second term. In the Senate, the Georgia seat that put Democrats over the top was a matter of Jon Ossoff winning just 59,944 more votes than David Perdue. The margin in the House was 31,751 votes across five districts. Democrats don’t own either House or Senate majorities, or likely even a long-term lease. It could be a real short-term rental if they are not careful.

Second, we have had a good bit of inflation—of the political rather than economic kind. A spending total so low as to distress most progressives would have been considered a historic victory the last time a Democrat was in the White House. During the Obama presidency, his aides would go to great lengths to keep the price tag of domestic spending proposals to levels starting with a "B" (billion), not a "T" (trillion). Spending on new programs that would constitute even a quarter or one-fifth of a scaled-back package would have been considered a major accomplishment in the Clinton or Obama years.

Another consideration ought to be that if they hold out for a bigger number and end up with nothing, that would feed into a narrative that President Biden, his aides, and their allies on Capitol Hill are inept. Perhaps they should take a look at the president’s job-approval ratings in the most recent round of polls on specific issues, such as handling immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border, the coronavirus, and Afghanistan. Additionally, many retired or soon-to-retire baby boomers are uniquely vulnerable to inflation, the threat of which looms over the economy.

Coming up completely empty-handed would feed into a narrative of ineffectiveness, if not incompetence. Context and extenuating circumstances mean little or nothing to swing voters in midterms. Midterm elections are choices, not between the two parties or sets of party leaders but between the attitudes of “time for a change” and “stay the course.” A look at the most recent round of consumer-confidence ratings shows just how skittish Americans are right now. In the monthly University of Michigan national surveys, independents have the most pessimistic view of the economy they have had since April 2012.

No doubt Democrats will try to shift the focus of this election onto efforts by Republican governors and state legislatures to eviscerate Roe v. Wade and restrict voting. If I were a Democratic strategist, I certainly would try. But I would know that at best it would be only marginally effective given the nature of midterm elections.

If Democrats think that Biden is better off coming up empty-handed on his signature legislative initiative, then by all means, they should not give in an inch. But swallowing some pride, taking what they can get, and giving themselves and Biden a trophy they can point to might be more prudent.

This article was published for the National Journal on September 13, 2021.