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Yes, Democrats Can Make Things Even Worse for Themselves

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 7: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks during a rally for immigration provisions to be included in the Build Back Better Act outside the U.S. Capitol December 7, 2021 in Washington, DC. Progressive Democrats are urging the Senate to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. in the Build Back Better Act. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 7: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks during a rally for immigration provisions to be included in the Build Back Better Act outside the U.S. Capitol December 7, 2021 in Washington, DC. Progressive Democrats are urging the Senate to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. in the Build Back Better Act. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) (Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images North America)

If you’re like most Americans, you don’t think Joe Biden is doing well as president. Inflation is out of control. His administration appears to lack any viable plan to control border crossing. The president’s gaffes alternate between the amusing and the alarming. The Democratic Party seems headed for a pasting this November.

But things could always be worse — and they would be if Biden listened to his left-wing critics.

They look at Democrats’ low poll numbers and think the way to raise them is to go even further left and to be even more partisan. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Bronx Democrat, recently said that Biden and other Democrats have erred by clinging to the outdated belief that bipartisan deals are possible. They are in danger of losing seats this fall, she claims, because they have catered to a dwindling group of independent voters rather than delivered for the party’s base.

That means they should play hardball with centrist Democrats such as Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Ocasio-Cortez thinks that the failure of the Democrats’ “Build Back Better” initiative vindicated the legislative strategy that she and other progressives pursued: holding up passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill the moderates wanted to pressure them to support the social spending bonanza in Build Back Better.

It’s a triply strange conclusion. First, the strategy failed: Progressives could not maintain the blockade against the infrastructure compromise. Second, a number of moderates indicated they were prepared to see both bills die rather than cave to the progressives. If the blockade had held, then, the result might have been no bills passed instead of one.

Third, the fact that the infrastructure bill became law, with Republicans providing the margin of victory in the House, invalidates Ocasio-Cortez’s premise that bipartisan deals are no longer possible. So does the passage of bipartisan bills to tackle Covid throughout 2020 and the recent passage of a federal anti-lynching law.

The progressives’ electoral strategy is not based on reality, either. It’s true that since June Biden has lost 11 points among Democrats in Gallup’s polling. But he has lost 17 points among independents. Moving middle-of-the-road voters from the Republicans to the Democrats was crucial to Democratic victories in both 2018 and 2020. In Arizona, independents went for Trump in 2016 but for Biden in 2020. That’s why the state flipped to the Democrats last time.

Ocasio-Cortez herself has benefited from the suburban swing to the Democrats during the Trump presidency. It’s the reason she has spent her entire tenure in the House in the majority.

But she doesn’t have firsthand experience with appealing to voters in the center, or needing to. She won a low-turnout primary for an extremely safe Democratic seat in 2018 and has never had a tough race since.

Some of the Democrats who have cooled toward Biden, meanwhile, consider themselves moderate or conservative. What has disappointed them about him probably isn’t insufficient progressivism.

But the left wing of the party has a tendency to assume it speaks for all Democratic voters. Writing for CNN.com, Jill Filipovic says that Biden is putting congressional Democrats at risk by proposing a “timid moderate” budget. Among its sins: proposing more money for policing. When Biden spoke up for funding the police in his State of the Union address, some left-wing activists expressed outrage.

A lot of Democratic voters feel differently. Last fall, Pew Research found that more than a third of Democrats want more police funding. Only a quarter want less. A slightly higher percentage of black adults than of Democrats favored increased funding. And all the numbers have been shifting rapidly in favor of more money.

In the overall population, the more-money side outnumbers the less-money side by 47% to 15%. A new NBC poll finds that 75% of all Americans, and 59% of Democrats, would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports “funding the police and providing them the resources and training they need.”

It would be political malpractice for Biden not to respond to this public sentiment. But many on the left are shutting the ears against anything the electorate is trying to say. In the American Prospect, a progressive magazine, Robert Kuttner supplemented the familiar advice that Democrats need to do more to mobilize the left with the suggestion that they make Donald Trump the issue in their races this fall. That idea was of course central to last fall’s campaign by Terry McAuliffe, who is not the governor of Virginia.

If the elections go as expected, Democrats will suffer deep losses. But Ocasio-Cortez will still be in her dark-blue seat. And she’ll still be explaining that everything would have gone better if only the rest of the Democrats were just like her.

Related at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Merrick Garland Has More Than Enough to Investigate Trump: Timothy L. O’Brien

• Ketanji Brown Jackson? Popular. Republican Senators? Not So Much: Jonathan Bernstein

• Ron DeSantis Isn’t a Trump Clone. He’s Just a Republican: Ramesh Ponnuru

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of National Review, a contributor to CNN and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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