The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Stop blaming the left for Biden’s problems

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a progressive from Vermont. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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With President Biden’s agenda dragging itself through the molasses of the legislative process and his hopes for a transformative presidency seemingly dashed, it’s all but inevitable that blame will be placed on the Democratic Party’s progressives. They were too ambitious and too naive, this story goes, believing they had a mandate for revolutionary change when in fact the public opposed their left-wing program.

But that story is wrong in every respect. In fact, over the past two years, progressives have done almost everything right, or at least as well as could have been expected. If they don’t get all the policy victories they want — and they won’t — it isn’t because of some kind of strategic miscalculation or any success forcing the party to follow their disastrous path to electoral doom.

Let’s begin here: Biden and Democrats aren’t just in a tenuous position when it comes to their congressional majorities, it’s an unprecedented position.

The Senate is divided 50-50, and Democrats have just a nine-vote margin in the House. Compare that with the majorities President Barack Obama had in 2009: 60-to-40 in the Senate, 257-to-178 in the House. Or President Bill Clinton in 1993: 57-to-43 in the Senate, 258-to-176 in the House.

In fact, in the entire history of his party, going all the way back to its founding in the early 19th century and the presidency of Andrew Jackson, no Democratic president has come into office with congressional majorities as small as Biden’s. Not one.

Given that fact, it’s almost a miracle that Biden has managed to sign any legislation at all.

Now, let’s consider how progressives have operated since the lead-up to the 2020 election. Is it a story of progressives dragging Democrats toward an untenable and unpopular left-wing agenda? Was there a brutal internal conflict over policy that progressives won?

Not at all. The party has unquestionably moved left — but not as far as the progressives have wanted. And it did so with the full cooperation of the party’s centrists, on all but some relatively minor issues around things such as the deduction for state and local income taxes.

Right now, the focus of Democratic disappointment is two voting rights bills and the Build Back Better social infrastructure bill. Have they failed to become law because the public rose up in disgust against them? No. There has been no popular revolt against voting rights legislation or BBB. All the latter’s key provisions are popular with the public, many overwhelmingly so.

The problem has come down to two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have decided to stand athwart their party’s agenda.

So what precisely is the wacky leftist idea that Biden and the party have embraced to their detriment? Paid family leave? Universal pre-K? Support for clean energy? There has been no public revolt against any of it.

If anything has marked the performance of congressional progressives during the past year, it has been their seriousness. They’ve been realistic about what was possible, committed to doing the hard work of policymaking, and willing to give ground in service of the larger goal of passing legislation.

Let’s look at one issue to see how this has played out. During the 2020 primary, the progressive candidates embraced varieties of Medicare-for-all, a legitimately left idea. Moderates, including Biden, advocated the more modest but still progressive public option. Biden won that debate.

But as president, Biden still hasn’t offered legislation based on his campaign health-care plan, and he probably never will. Instead, BBB contained even more limited tweaks to the system, including adding hearing coverage to Medicare and enhancing Obamacare subsidies.

It’s meaningful, but it’s also piecemeal, trying to address discrete gaps in the system. It’s nothing like the top-to-bottom overhaul progressives wanted.

And yet, like the good soldiers they’ve shown themselves to be, progressives didn’t say, “These health-care provisions are trash, and I won’t vote for this bill unless it’s Medicare-for-all.” They negotiated to make what progress they could and accepted the outcome of those negotiations.

That’s been the progressive modus operandi this entire time: Make the case for what are very popular ideas, stay flexible, accomplish what they can, and support the president. The fact that a bunch of Fox News hosts are squawking “Socialism! Socialism!” every night doesn’t mean these bills haven’t passed because the public thinks they’re too liberal.

Blaming the left for the failures of any Democrat is an old habit, one that will probably never die. It’s based on a constellation of misperceptions about how the public sees policy debates, which in truth they almost completely ignore.

And it’s driven by one of the core fallacies of centrism, which says that if a party finds the precise midpoint between what Democrats and Republicans want and plants itself there, then political success will inevitably follow.

That’s not how things work in the real world, where if you have literally zero margin for error in Congress, you’ll be lucky to get any bills passed. That situation was years in the making, the product of a variety of forces and events. But it surely isn’t the left’s fault.