The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The left is pushing Biden to spend more. It’s a sound strategy.

Politicians respond to pressure — including on things like infrastructure

President Biden sits next to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) during a meeting with a bipartisan group of governors and mayors at the White House on Wednesday. Some progressive activists wanted Biden to push for more infrastructure spending than he has. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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“You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.”

That’s what Franklin Delano Roosevelt purportedly told a group of left-wing activists early in his presidency. FDR was an ally to their cause. But he cautioned them that nothing would get done without political pressure. Former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt said the same thing to a room full of environmental leaders in the early days of the Clinton administration. If the environmental movement did not push the White House and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, then elected officials with good intentions would get nothing done. It’s a message that progressive Democrats appear to be taking to heart in the fight over the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework and its companion reconciliation bill.

The idea can seem counterintuitive at first glance: When politicians activists agree with are in power, there is a natural inclination to ease off and stop pressuring them. Progressive advocacy organizations have a seat at the table in shaping President Biden’s policy agenda. They have allies in the administration. Their champions in Congress chair vital committees. Attacking the very politicians they helped elect can seem shortsighted, a recipe for dysfunction that leaves the party weaker in the next election.

But there’s a simpler principle: Politicians respond to pressure. That’s their job. It is what they are supposed to be good at (well … that, and fundraising). When activists stop pressuring their political allies, the only pressure comes from their opponents. Public displays of political pressure help political leaders stand firm in favor of their own policy commitments. It helps to stiffen the spine and strengthens their negotiating position.

Consider the current status of Biden’s infrastructure agenda. Eleven Republican senators have signaled they are open to supporting the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework — $579 billion in new spending on hard infrastructure priorities that Republicans and Democrats alike strongly favor. But their support is soft and wavering. Immediately after announcing the framework, several of those senators indicated they would pull their support unless the Biden administration dropped its plans to pursue other parts of its agenda through a reconciliation bill. In the meantime, Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have both signaled opposition to the bipartisan deal, and conservative dark-money groups have launched a multimillion dollar ad blitz intended to pressure Republicans to walk away. That means the (relatively) moderate Republicans who had signed onto the deal are facing pressure. The details of the legislation are still being hammered out. The White House is looking at whether it needs to make additional concessions so the bipartisan plan isn’t scuttled completely.

Those pressures are real. They require counterpressure.

Political power never lasts. Democrats need to use theirs while they have it.

There’s also real concern that all this bipartisan talk is just a strategic feint. Progressive Democrats remember well the early years of the Obama administration. Republican senators repeatedly held out the promise of bipartisan support for the Affordable Care Act. But their support was always contingent on another round of meetings and another set of concessions. Democrats kept delaying the bill, weakening the bill, as conservative partisan media framed it as an existential threat to cherished American freedoms — all in the hopes that Barack Obama would be able to claim a bipartisan victory. The result was weaker legislation that delayed the rest of Obama’s policy agenda while attracting zero Republican votes. Progressive Democrats warned that Republican Senate obstruction was the point all along, and watched, dismayed, as that obstruction was rewarded at the ballot box. Progressive Democrats worry now that Republican promises of bipartisanship will yield the same disastrous results this time around. As when Lucy urges Charlie Brown to come kick the football she’s holding, they know how this story ends.

For progressive Democrats inside and outside of government, these are all reasons right now is the best time to apply very loud, very serious pressure. The Biden administration wants this infrastructure package to be bold and to be bipartisan. The pressure to make concessions in pursuit of bipartisanship will come from the right and from the center. Some of that pressure is genuine, some is in bad faith. But all of it figures into a delicate negotiation where Biden’s team has to decide what elements of their agenda they are willing to scale back or sacrifice. Counterpressure from progressives can help the White House stand firm as the legislation continues to be shaped.

Progressive counterpressure has a strategic component, too, because of the strong likelihood that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework will collapse and the entire infrastructure package needs to get lumped into a single reconciliation bill. If that happens, then Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) will hold the essential veto points. Both Manchin and Sinema are still deciding how big and how bold they think the infrastructure package ought to be. Both are accomplished politicians. If they haven’t made up their minds yet, then they certainly aren’t immune to pressure. If progressive Democrats stay quiet while conservative activists spend millions deriding the proposed legislation as a new era of radical socialism, then Manchin and Sinema will only feel pressure from one side. They will surely respond accordingly.

Democrats complain about Joe Manchin, but they’re lucky to have him

We thus should neither be shocked nor concerned that young climate activists are chanting “No Climate, No Deal” and prematurely labeling Biden a “coward.” They are brash in their counterpressure, but they are also applying it at precisely the right time. The hard choice will come later, when the legislative details are set in stone and the votes are closer to being counted. I expect at that time that progressive Democratic legislators will vote in favor of the resulting compromise — politics, after all, is the “art of the possible,” and no one will likely be under any illusions over what would be possible with Democratic majorities in Congress, however narrow, rather than under possible Republican control after 2022. Progressive advocacy organizations will fall on a spectrum between applauding partial wins and bemoaning partial losses. Then they’ll all come together for the next fight after that.

Ultimately, this is the lesson from FDR: Politicians respond to pressure. That’s true of your political allies and true of your political foes. If progressive Democrats want Biden to live up to his bold policy proposals, the best way they can help is by applying as much pressure as they can now.

Read more:

Biden wants to go big on infrastructure. History says that’s the right call.

Five myths about infrastructure

Manchin thinks the filibuster fosters bipartisanship. Here’s why it doesn’t.