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Why Are Democrats Acting Like the Sky Is Falling?

The Biden administration has already accomplished a lot—and the party is in a better position than many on the left claim.

Elizabeth Warren wearing a purple suit
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Elizabeth Warren on the way to a Democratic Senate lunch at the Capitol last week, during the negotiations for a bipartisan infrastructure deal

The last cut on Janis Joplin’s final album, Pearl, was the chillingly apt “Get It While You Can.” More than a half-century after the death of one of the most haunting blues singers of the 1960s, that desperate sense of urgency about seizing the moment—whatever the cost—has become an article of faith for many on the left.

As we head into an early summer filled with frenzied legislative negotiations in the 50–50 Senate, there is a crippling fear among left-wing legislators and Democratic activists of the word compromise. At a time when the Republicans have become the party of January 6 denial and crazed Trumpian election conspiracies, these Democrats are caught in their own set of internal contradictions.

On one hand, these Democrats rightly believe that their progressive agenda on climate change, voting rights, and immigration is strongly popular with the voters. But on the other hand, many of these same Democrats fear that if far-reaching legislation is not somehow rammed through Congress this summer, it will never happen in their lifetimes.

The bipartisan infrastructure talks among moderates in the Senate immediately inspired a new political slogan on the left: “No Climate, No Deal.” As Elizabeth Warren put it, “I can’t support any infrastructure package that does not include childcare, clean energy, and requiring the rich and powerful to pay a fair share to get this done.” When Joe Manchin floated a revised—albeit ill-fated—voting rights bill that quickly won Stacey Abrams’s endorsement, the reaction from a coalition of major civil rights groups was full-throated opposition to any notion of compromise. On Tuesday, when Democrats in the Senate (including Manchin) united behind taking up the For the People Act, they were faced with a predictable GOP filibuster, and left-wing Democrat legislators complained that Joe Biden hadn’t staked his prestige on the hopeless vote.

The implication is that Lyndon Johnson would have found a way to intimidate recalcitrant Republican senators with what was known as the Johnson Treatment. But Johnson, throughout his presidency, always had a minimum of 64 Democratic Senate seats. Pressure tactics and blandishments are of limited value in a 50–50 Senate with Mitch McConnell playing the role of Dr. No. And activists don’t seem to grasp that Biden is trying to woo Manchin, the most influential fence-sitter in Washington, with the traditional blandishments available to a president: He named the senator’s wife, Gayle Manchin, as co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

In normal times, the Senate moves at a pace that even a French winemaker might consider leisurely. If somehow Democrats were to agree on an incremental reform like forcing Republicans to filibuster on the Senate floor in marathon sessions, it would tie up Congress for months. By historical standards, the passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package alone would have been an epic achievement for any president in the past half-century. Then there is the stunning triumph of vaccines over a pandemic—and you have a Democratic narrative for the 2022 elections that would have seemed like a fantasy just a year ago.

But instead, many Democrats have convinced themselves that the end is nigh. Of course, each week another GOP-led state legislature concocts a new way to make it harder to vote. The record temperatures on the West Coast serve as a reminder that global warming cannot be wished away. But it is impossible to apply this sense of urgency to Congress when you don’t have the votes. Demonstrations, fundraising appeals, and angry interviews on MSNBC are not going to change the daunting arithmetic of Capitol Hill.

What Democrats have failed to realize in their despair is that their short-term political future seems far rosier than their downcast demeanor would suggest. While it will be difficult—albeit far from impossible—to hold the House after redistricting, the Senate map for 2022 actually looks somewhat promising. In a reflection of how difficult it is to be Trumpian enough in the modern GOP, Republican incumbents are retiring in potentially winnable states such as Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Ohio. True, there are also vulnerable Democratic incumbents (both Raphael Warnock in Georgia and Mark Kelly in Arizona were elected in 2020 to fill out two-year terms). But a plausible case can be made that, if the economic recovery stays strong, Chuck Schumer will be majority leader in 2023 with an additional vote or two to spare.

The longer-term trends also are heading in the Democrats’ direction. Places like Cobb County (Georgia) and Maricopa County (Arizona) have been dramatically turning true blue for years now. And Democrats may be able to build on their recent gains in once reliably Republican suburbs if the GOP continues its obstinance on issues like climate. Left with non-college-educated whites in rural and exurban areas, the Republicans will find it hard to win either a congressional or Electoral College majority.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle that the Democrats must surmount in 2022 is the poised-on-the-window-ledge dejection of party activists and left-wingers. A Gallup poll released Wednesday found a sharp drop in the approval rating for Congress. In May, after Biden signed the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, 54 percent of Democrats gave Congress a positive rating. But now—with the news filled with tales of delay and obstruction—that number has plummeted to 38 percent.

By placing such unrealistic expectations on Biden and the Democratic Senate, these voters have set themselves up to believe that electoral politics are futile. They have willfully blinded themselves to what Biden has achieved already and remain oblivious to the stunningly different tone in Washington. Moreover, congressional negotiations will probably lead to some form of an infrastructure bill over the summer. And other Biden priorities can be passed using the same filibuster-proof reconciliation process that was employed with the stimulus.

There is something in the soul of the Democrats that invites self-inflicted torment. Why else would so many of them assume that the game is permanently lost when, in reality, their team is leading in the third inning?