The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The left dreamed of remaking America. Now, it stares into the abyss as Biden’s plans wither.

In 2020, prominent liberals promised major changes to the safety net and climate policy

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who appeared to have the wind at their backs during parts of the 2020 Democratic primary, have little recourse as centrist senators radically shrink President Biden’s economic legislation. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Just three years ago, as they vied to lead the country, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates competed to produce novel and dramatic policy proposals aimed at America’s most serious problems.

The party’s insurgent liberals, who at times ran at the front of the pack, brought to the national stage dozens of new policy ideas on health care, housing, climate, education and more. The scale of their ambition startled Washington and captivated millions of voters. The establishment candidates were forced to move left in response, adapting to incorporate the new policy energy pouring out of the party’s base.

But with the 2022 midterms months away, the intellectual optimism and energy that defined the American left during that window has been markedly deflated. During the Trump administration, the party’s progressives dreamed of returning to power and enacting generational policy change — national health care; more than doubling the minimum wage; cancellation of student debt; a complete overhaul of the immigration system; major new social and education programs.

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These aspirations — already optimistic — have been battered repeatedly in the years since the primary but most severely over the last several months, as the failure of much of President Biden’s economic agenda becomes increasingly likely.

The uncertainty has become ever more urgent as Democrats weigh their campaign message in the 2022 midterm elections. Leading Democratic campaign officials have called for the party to revamp its message to avoid a wipeout in the midterms, forcing the party grapple with whether it will jettison the far-reaching ideas that helped define it now that Republicans appear in the ascendancy.

Long gone are the days when Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sparred across Iowa and New Hampshire over whose policy platform was most transformative, motivated by a sense that they had a chance to usher in a new era of American politics.

Instead, Warren, Sanders and the rest of Washington’s liberal policy apparatus sit by without recourse as Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) decide the fate of Biden’s Build Back Better Act — either by paring it back dramatically or defeating it altogether. Manchin and Sinema have final say over the Build Back Better legislation because Democrats have only a one-vote margin in a Senate evenly divided between the parties, which allows them to dream of change while having little room to actually achieve it.

The ossification of Biden’s legislative agenda underscores the long-term structural challenges facing the party’s left-flank, highlighting how difficult it will be to enact liberal policy change even with Democratic control of Congress.

Compounding liberal disillusionment is conservatives’ grip on the Supreme Court, which acts as a backstop against left policy change even if the obstacles to legislation are eventually overcome. The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration’s vaccination-or-testing requirement for the country’s biggest firms, a devastating blow to the White House’s efforts to fight covid.

The federal government’s uneven response to the pandemic has also exposed the lack of U.S. administrative capacity to implement new programs. And the reemergence of inflation this year as a defining economic threat — a policy challenge that liberals had not been preparing to confront — appears at odds with the left’s vision to usher in a new paradigm with transformational spending programs.

Bob Hockett, who served as an outside policy adviser to Sanders, Warren, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), reflected on “the sense of limitless possibility unlike anything in my lifetime” during the 2020 Democratic primary. Democratic candidates put forward an increasingly ambitious series of policy reforms, and experts debated the relative merits of far-flung ideas such as a federal jobs guarantee, a universal basic income, and sector-wide union bargaining.

“For those years, there was this real effervescence in what you might call ‘the idea space’ — the space of policy innovation. There was this sense that there were no limits in American policy — it was very vertiginous, almost dizzying,” Hockett said.

“It was a heady and incredibly exciting time for progressives. Now, it’s just watching to see what Sinema and Manchin will do. Deflated seems like the right word — there’s been a damper thrown on it all.”

To be sure, political parties tend in general to think big when they are out of power before being faced with the realities of legislative governance. Republicans promised to repeal Obamacare, which they failed to do while in office. The GOP was forced to shelve other policy goals — such as cutting federal entitlement programs — with their thin Senate margins under the Trump administration.

And much of the liberal policy work of Democrats’ wilderness years has produced major changes. Biden and the Democratic Party approved a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus plan that led to a tight labor market and wage growth for workers. The rescue plan expanded a benefit program for children — opposed as too generous by Hillary Clinton as recently as 2016 — that lifted millions of poor children out of poverty, although it expired at the end of 2021.

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Joshua McCabe, a historian of welfare policy at Endicott College, said what the left was experiencing is “part of a normal cycle: You’re out of power for a while, and there’s not much you can do so you turn to new ideas. … And then you get into the reality of governing and you find the folks you’ve been talking to in those small intellectual circles aren’t really the ones in power.”

Liberals showed significant inroads by establishing a major presence in the White House and an increasing share of the Democratic Party. The party’s leaders, including Biden, moved left and embraced new policy priorities. The administration is staffed with scores of liberal policy thinkers at its highest levels who come from the Sanders and Warren faction of the party. Biden has appointed several reformist crusaders — such as antitrust advocate Lina Khan, now chair of the Federal Trade Commission — to key regulatory posts.

Despite the setbacks, liberal lawmakers say, there remains a longer-term path to remolding the nation as they want as they exert increasing sway over the Democratic Party.

“The aspiration for progressive change is a multigenerational challenge. The Biden presidency, influenced heavily by the Sanders movement, has been an explicit intellectual rejection of neoliberalism and an affirmation of the role of the state to give people a hand up,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who endorsed Sanders in 2020 and is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“This next decade we need to do the hard work and mobilizing in precincts across America to make the vision a reality. It will happen.”

The federal government has long been resistant to the left’s policy prescriptions. Over the last several decades, liberals have achieved only one major expansion of the social safety net — President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which was partially modeled after GOP health plans. Obama’s presidency was preceded by a rightward turn in the Democratic Party against expanded spending programs.

Conservatives say the 2020 primary was characterized by fanciful thinking that was never based in reality. The right has pointed to widespread voter discontent over inflation as evidence that Biden’s attempts to enact aggressive change through the rescue plan were misguided. Republicans say Biden was elected due to his reputation as a pragmatic centrist — one he then abandoned to appease the left with grand promises that were always unrealistic.

Donald Schneider, who served as a senior GOP aide on the House Ways and Means Committee, pointed out that even less liberal candidates such as then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) proposed more than $10 trillion in new spending on climate alone. Sanders proposed more than $50 trillion in new spending, with $30 trillion on Medicare-for-all. Warren pushed more than $20 trillion in tax hikes.

Now, Democrats are hoping to salvage a package worth $1.75 trillion.

“In hindsight, it was a total rethink of the system as a whole — enormous, unprecedented expansions of government — that was both shocking for the time and completely unrealistic,” Schneider said.

As Democrats’ agenda stalls, the national conditions feared by the left have grown only more dire. The amount of money controlled by the wealthiest Americans has continued its rise, with billionaires amassing close to $2 trillion during the pandemic alone, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think tank, as campaign finance laws remain stripped from the books. The planet continues to record its hottest years on record due to global climate change. Universal health care remains a distant goal. Homelessness has risen four consecutive years and the nation faces a major housing shortage with no clear resolution in sight.

If Democrats’ Build Back Better and voting rights plans fail, the chances of liberal action to address any of these challenges will be radically diminished. The public has soured on both Biden and the Democratic brand, and the party is now widely considered likely to lose the House of Representatives this fall. It could be years, if not decades, before Democrats again control both branches of Congress and the White House.

The 2020 primary marked a rare change from this pessimistic outlook for liberals. Trump had scrambled all political prognostications in 2016, leading some observers to believe the electorate cried out for radical change. Populism appeared ascendant.

Democratic presidential candidates unfurled a wide array of policy prescriptions to meet the moment, and not just on the left. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) proposed a “Baby Bonds” plan to shrink the Black-White wealth gap by seeding federal grants at birth for American babies. Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) proposed a health-care bill called “Medicare X” that would create a federal public option for tens of millions of Americans. Harris pushed a $3 trillion tax plan for the lower and middle classes.

These ideas have virtually all ceased to be discussed since the primary ended.

“At the time, it seemed like all the received wisdom that had driven economic policy as it had been made for decades was suddenly up for grabs,” said Marshall Steinbaum, an economics professor at the University of Utah who has given policy advice to many members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Now, it feels like we can’t break free of the accumulation of past policy failures — or the political culture that created it and sustains it.”