One of the strangest story lines about the battle over President Biden’s agenda is the notion that progressives won’t accept “reality.” But if this saga tells us anything, it’s that we need a wholesale rethink of what counts as “realism” in our politics these days.

The progressive demand for $3.5 trillion in spending on the Build Back Better reconciliation bill is regularly depicted as ideologically wild-eyed intransigence. By contrast, centrists’ insistence on keeping that spending way down is treated as a kind of realistically grounded — and thus immovable — object around which everything else must orbit.

The deep perversity of this is illustrated by the news that Biden is frustrated with two of these centrists, Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). Politico has a new report on a conference call between Biden and House progressives that illuminates this dynamic.

On the call, Biden told progressives that the reconciliation bill will have to come down to about $2 trillion. But he also detailed how difficult dealing with Manchin and Sinema has been:

“It was a blunt conversation,” said one House Democrat who was in the meeting. Biden is “getting more and more frustrated.”
The source familiar with the discussion added that Biden said things like, “‘I hear your frustration. You don’t have to talk to them as much as I have to talk to them’ — but then using it as a dash of realism to get progressives to come down, like, ‘This is as far as these folks will go.’”

I can confirm more. Progressives on the call were not told that Manchin and Sinema had actually agreed to that $2 trillion, just that the White House believed this was roughly what would pass muster, an aide to a House Democrat confirms to me.

What’s more, the aide says, much of the call consisted of progressives talking about various ways the price tag might come down. Similarly, NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell reports that on the call, progressives essentially said they’d take what Biden can get.

So Manchin and Sinema are still not detailing how much spending they can accept, or what they want sacrificed from the reconciliation bill. Meanwhile, progressives are signaling a willingness to make sacrifices to win Manchin and Sinema, and talking pragmatically about how to accomplish this, without even knowing what that will take.

Tell me who the true realists and pragmatists are in this scenario again?

We don’t know what specific sacrifices will ultimately be made. But the debate has centered on a choice: either jettison some core priorities to retain robust commitments on fewer of them, or keep most of them in scaled-down form.

So it’s unclear which priorities — slowing the planet’s warming, tax reform to rebalance our out-of-whack political economy, investments in child care, health care and paid leave to empower millions struggling economically — will remain, or at what level of ambition.

We know Manchin wants around $1.5 trillion in spending while imposing additional means-testing on the bill’s welfare benefits and making it friendlier to fossil fuel interests. We know Sinema also wants less spending.

Their positions do harbor actual judgments about our national future: Manchin apparently sees deficits and inflation as more serious long-term threats than climate change, and thinks welfare benefits going to the undeserving require us to make those programs less generous and universal. Sinema appears reflexively suspicious of government spending and seems to think higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations will have net negative effects.

These are bad arguments. As writers including Paul Krugman and Eric Levitz have detailed, the actual ambition of these proposals is, if anything, fairly modest, relative to the scale of our global-warming and political-economic challenges. Jonathan Cohn has demonstrated just how transformative provisions such as the expanded child tax credit, larger health-care subsidies and paid leave could be for the everyday lives of millions.

But beyond this, the point is that Manchin and Sinema have imposed a level of abstraction and generality on this debate that has made real argument over concrete trade-offs much harder.

Progressives insist that the failure to deal with all these challenges poses more of a threat to our future than higher spending and high-end taxation do. But we cannot debate this, because we don’t really know which challenges Manchin and Sinema see as postponable for the foreseeable future.

And they can get away with this, in part because our discourse privileges fiscal conservatism and hostility to spending as somehow inherently realistic and hardheaded. But there is nothing realistic or hardheaded about any of this.

What’s so frustrating here is that a unique confluence of circumstances — the increasing urgency of the climate crisis and covid-19’s unmasking of deep injustices in our economy — had seemed to create a new consensus grounded in a more realistic assessment of our national moment.

“The future challenge laid down by 2020 seems clear,” Adam Tooze’s great new book tells us. It is to “take seriously the need to build more sustainable and resilient economies.”

“These are the kinds of demands easily dismissed as unrealistic,” Tooze continues. “But after the shock of 2020, how much more evidence do we need?”

It’s still likely a deal of around $2 trillion will be reached. But the dark truth of the matter is that this opportunity is at real risk of getting squandered, and utterly groundless assumptions about what constitutes true “realism” are a key reason for it.

Biden is right to be frustrated with this ongoing posture from Manchin and Sinema. But if anything, we should all be a lot more angry about it.