The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats are being dragged down by their discontent

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) on Capitol Hill in D.C. on Jan. 4. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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It’s the season of Democratic discontent, when the party begins to panic and assemble its traditional circular firing squad.

Faced with voting rights legislation felled by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-Ariz.) devotion to the filibuster, Manchin’s destruction of the Build Back Better social infrastructure bill and the likelihood of losing the House in November, some of the more vulnerable Democrats are searching for anything that might convince the voters they ought to be returned to office.

And in their desperation, they’ve come up with an answer. As Marianna Sotomayor reports for The Post:

Among the requests of these so-called “front-liner” Democrats is to break up President Biden’s sprawling Build Back Better spending bill that has stalled in the Senate amid opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and hold votes on a series of politically popular provisions that would appeal to centrist voters and core Democrats alike.
These members have argued to top House leaders in recent days — so far, to no avail — that holding votes on narrow measures such as curbing prescription drug costs and extending the child tax credit would help Democrats make a case that they can improve voters’ lives economically despite soaring inflation and other issues that have dragged down Biden’s approval ratings.

So the answer to Manchin joining with Republicans to kill a big spending bill that was passed by the House is to have him join with Republicans to kill a series of smaller spending bills that will be passed by the House?

I’m not being completely fair; according to The Post’s reporting, some Democrats are holding out “hope that bipartisan deals could be reached on issues important to a broad range of voters.” Good luck with that.

But you can understand their frustration. The House has done its job for the past year, passing one piece after another of the Democratic agenda, only to watch the bills die in the Senate. Perhaps it’s a tribute to a few members’ faith in the wisdom of the voters that they believe that if the public sees them trying hard to accomplish worthwhile things, they might be rewarded.

But they won’t be.

Here’s the political dilemma they find themselves in: Although tackling difficult problems and passing legislation won’t ever guarantee victory for a party, not doing so almost certainly guarantees defeat. Delivering for the voters is the necessary but not sufficient condition for success.

What happens when legislation fails? Your supporters grow disenchanted and demoralized, just as Democratic voters are becoming now. They feel unmotivated to organize and turn out to vote. And it doesn’t help when all they see from their own representatives are complaints about what a bunch of failures Democrats are.

President Biden hasn’t been much help, either. His first impulse is to reach out to the other side, but even when he doesn’t — as with the aggressive speech he gave on voting rights in Atlanta — it can come at a moment when defeat is already upon him.

And here’s a truth Democrats have trouble articulating, especially when they’re so worried that the odor of futility might be hanging on them: The boring, uninspiring answer to all these problems is to simply elect more Democrats.

If Democrats had an extra couple of senators (along with keeping the House), Manchin and Sinema would no longer hold the balance of power; the party could reform the filibuster, pass voting rights legislation, pass the BBB bill and do a bunch more besides. It’s as simple as that.

But it’s hard to say to your supporters, “I know we didn’t give you what we said we would, but if you just turn out for one more election, I promise we’ll deliver next time!” It sounds weak, and doesn’t fit with the widespread (but incorrect) belief that success in politics is just a matter of will.

There’s no real mystery about what could help Democrats now. Only two times in recent decades has the president’s party avoided a major defeat in a midterm election — and it wasn’t because the party delivered well-designed legislation that brought tangible benefits to the electorate, who then flocked to the polls in a show of gratitude.

Both times it was because that electorate got angry at the opposition party. The first time was in 1998, when voters were angry at Republicans over the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and the second was in 2002, when a Republican scorched-earth campaign convinced them that Democrats were on the side of terrorists.

Democratic voters who pay a lot of attention to politics are certainly angry at Manchin and Sinema, but you won’t find Biden or too many other Democrats telling voters that turning out is important to make them irrelevant, even if Senate candidates both moderate and progressive are expressing their support for eliminating the filibuster. Other Democrats may sound exasperated when they talk about the two obstructionist senators, but they won’t target them as villains to be vanquished.

Which leaves the GOP. If Democrats could come up with a really good reason for voters to hate Republicans and fear their return to power — and pound it relentlessly until November — it might motivate enough Democrats to get to the polls to avert disaster. But they haven’t done it yet.