The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How do you count to 2,000? The Democrats cannot decide.

President-elect Joe Biden, campaigning for Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Atlanta on Jan. 4. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

What does $2,000 mean, anyway? The question plagues the Democratic Party.

The majority is riven with infighting over maybe-broken promises. The clash seems to be about a number on a check, but really it’s about something more: whether a political faction used to playing outsider is ready for the responsibility that comes with being on the inside.

President Biden vowed to put two grand in the people’s pockets late last year if Georgia voters sent Jon Ossoff and Raphael G. Warnock to Washington. Less clear is whether he meant two grand more than the $600 that was already on its way, or whether he meant two grand total — $600, plus the $1,400 the White House is pushing for today. The final amount, whatever it is, will be included in the next round of stimulus spending being wrestled to the ground by Biden and Congress.

Prepositions have never been so important: $2,000 checks, or $2,000 in checks?

Follow Molly Roberts's opinionsFollow

Both sides of this skirmish — the more moderate liberal Biden-backers and the leftists for whom “liberal” has become a dirty word — have plausible arguments to make about who said what. The $2,000 checks chatter started after the election last year, before other funds were okayed in December. That helps bolster the Biden team’s case; the squabble back then was $2,000 versus $600, not $2,600 versus $600.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

And yet — there were mentions from Biden of that same grand number after President Donald Trump had signed off on the initial $600 infusion. And there was that mock-up of a big old check accompanying advertisements for the Georgia candidates, with a big old $2,000 plastered across it.

Who’s right? That battle goes on. “Where does this say $600 down payment + $1400 check?” asked a grumpy voter on Twitter when the commander in chief announced his plan. Or as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told The Post, “$2,000 means $2,000. $2,000 does not mean $1,400.″

Yes, but $1,400 plus $600 means $2,000, too. These checks are winners on the campaign trail because unlike most policy proposals, they’re straightforward as can be: free money, no fine print. It’s yours. Now that simplicity is being exploited to treat anything as complicated as elementary addition as a sign of fudging by the slippery establishment.

Lefty politerati such as Ocasio-Cortez could have treated a $1,400 top-off as a victory. Few, after all, would have thought a year ago that a normie kind of guy like Biden would clamor for throwing so much cash at so many citizens. Getting him there owes much to populism’s potency. And its leaders could have justifiably claimed a hefty chunk of credit. So three cheers for populism, and two checks while we’re at it.

Instead, they decided to market the disappearance of an already-phantom $600 as a loss. This resulted, or so the narrative holds, from a betrayal by the moderates, who are constantly baiting, switching and generally fibbing. That kind of thinking is tempting, because it lines up with how the left is accustomed to seeing itself: simultaneously wallowing and basking in its supposed impotence. They’re veteran underdogs, and their scrappy status accounts for some portion of their appeal — especially as an alternative to a corrupt and complacent mainstream. Indeed, maybe being out of power is what makes this faction so powerful.

In reality, however, the check fracas embodies a reckoning for a progressive vanguard that too many laughed off for too long. These self-proclaimed socialists (or socialists adjacent) still aren’t the bride, but at least they’re finally bridesmaids. Now, standing at the altar with bouquets in hand, they seem stymied for what to do. Even the $1.9 trillion that the president is championing is an opening offer, meant to spark negotiation. The result will likely be lower in the end, but it will still be a historic spending spree either way — which, for those who count spreading the wealth a cornerstone of their economic philosophy, seems an unequivocal triumph.

Unless you measure it against what was never going to happen: everything they wanted, neatly tucked into a bill.

The left finds itself in a new place, as an opposition party within a governing party, struggling to figure out when to oppose and when to govern. They’re practiced in opposing, spurred on by grit and grievance. And yet now, with more influence than ever before, they’ll have to learn how to do something new. Governing requires compromise, and after that it requires treating many losses as victories because they produced something good rather than nothing at all.

Today, governing may require saying that $2,000 equals whatever you’re able to get.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: It’s up to Manchin to make Biden live up to his promise of unity

Katrina vanden Heuvel: At long last, a president declares that the era of small government is over

Jennifer Rubin: What the Republican counteroffer to Biden’s stimulus plan means

Greg Sargent: Republicans just handed Biden a good reason to go big — without them

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Democrats are faced with a choice. Protect the filibuster or protect democracy.