The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why progressive Democrats are digging in their heels on spending

Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 27. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Even experienced Washington hands have been dizzy lately trying to follow the twists and turns, the ins and outs, the ups and downs of the money mill. Democrats are fighting among themselves over an infrastructure spending bill that most lawmakers want — and a budget reconciliation bill that most lawmakers do not want, though progressives insist on it. And oh, by the way, we’ve hit another debt ceiling, so it’s time for Republicans to pretend they care about red ink.

What appears so complicated can be clarified, though. We’re watching a realization by progressive Democrats that they may have passed their zenith and are facing the downhill slope of power. They aren’t sure when they will get another chance to remake the world according to their dreams. The left lost last year’s election. Many of them expect to lose again next year.

November 2020 was a Democratic victory, but not a progressive one. The record turnout was a referendum on then-President Donald Trump, who received more votes than any incumbent in history and yet was beaten by an even larger group of voters determined to mute the Trumpian cacophony.

But in clicking away from Trump, the electorate also muted the left. Voters cut the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to the wispiest of whiskers and placed control of the Senate in the purple hands of Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). You’d have to go back nearly 50 years, to the early 1970s, to find an election cycle in which America’s left wing played such a prominent role and received such an extensive opportunity to make a case for itself.

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The new progressive case was ambitious, even visionary. Candidates received wide latitude in the press to promote a sweeping platform: green-energy mandates, forgiveness of student loans, universal health insurance, prison reform, expansion of the Supreme Court, a wealth tax — to name only a few items on the progressive wish list. Many of these ideas scored well in public opinion polls. When it comes to wielding power, though, the only polls that matter are the ones on Election Day.

The results were emphatic. Even among Democrats, voters replied “no, thank you” to the progressive agenda. The party scorned progressive stalwarts, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in favor of the compromiser Joe Biden.

The left lost ground among Latino voters — the fastest-growing slice of the electorate. Sanders and Warren failed to connect with key Black communities in the Democratic Party’s stalwart base. Republicans strengthened their hold on state government, now controlling 30 state legislatures and 27 governorships. This edge can be felt in today’s redistricting battles, which will shape the next 10 years.

With so much handwriting on the wall, progressives have dug in their heels for maximum spending. They professed shock when news broke that Manchin wanted to cap the reconciliation bill at $1.5 trillion, an amount that Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) dismissed as “crumbs.” Deep down, Bush and others on the left may know that an awful lot of voters think $1.5 trillion is more than crumbs.

In hopes of moving President Biden in their direction — though, honestly, no one has any idea where Biden might be, on spending or any number of other issues — progressives have been cooing to him about the New Deal. Biden’s legacy, they purr, could be the greatest since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s.

But Roosevelt did not become the most successful Democratic politician of modern times by holding popular bills hostage to unpopular ones. Today’s progressives misunderstand FDR and his New Deal, and they would have a more promising future if they were to study the example more closely.

Some of the most ambitious progressive legislation of the New Deal — for example, Social Security and the pro-union Wagner Act — did not pass Congress in 1933, immediately after Roosevelt won his first presidential election. These laws passed two years later, after Democrats picked up seats in the midterm election. FDR allowed the public to deliver its verdict on his governing approach. Only then, after voters approved what they had seen so far, did Roosevelt give them more.

If progressives truly want to expand on FDR’s legacy, they will follow in his footsteps. They will take the mountain of money that Manchin is offering to support, add the long-promised infrastructure bill (giving Biden that rarest of talking points, a bipartisan win), stack the cash atop the $1.9 trillion in pandemic relief from last winter and get busy showing what they can deliver if given a chance.

Voters will reward them at the next election if their plans work as well as they say. Instead of finding themselves on the downslope of power, they’ll be strengthened to climb some more.