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Moderate Democrats Are Sabotaging the Biden Agenda

And they’re hurting their own reelection chances in the process.

Senator Joe Manchin stands in an elevator as the door close.
Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images

It may be hard to remember, but six months ago, Democrats had a kind of super momentum. The euphoria of the early days of a new president, plus a fierce urgency to do what was necessary to slow the pandemic, brought congressional Democrats together to pass a sweeping, $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, covering everything from vaccine distribution to unemployment to direct cash payments. The politics were not particularly complicated: Democrats had run on ending the pandemic efficiently and competently—that is, without telling people to eat fish-tank cleaner. Signed on March 11, the American Rescue Act did what it set out to do: Vaccines got distributed, and people got money. The bill was so good that many Republicans tried to take credit for it, despite not voting for it.

A half-year later, and that sense of momentum has all but disappeared. Now Democrats find themselves in an internecine quagmire as they try to push two bills, both of which continue the project begun earlier this year, through the legislative bowels. One is a $1 trillion infrastructure bill with (some) bipartisan support that would boost the economy and rebuild the crumbling roads and bridges that politicians have been invoking for years. The other, a $3.5 trillion spending bill, would be the largest expansion of the welfare state since the Lyndon Johnson administration, including money for Medicare expansion, universal pre-K, and (maybe) immigration reform.

That Democrats aren’t acting with a similar sense of urgency boggles the mind. This pair of bills now constitutes the entirety of what we might call a “Democratic agenda”—and, by extension, the party’s slim hopes of retaining its congressional majorities next fall hinge on its successful enactment. (The Democrats want to call this agenda “Build Back Better,” which is a terrible moniker.) Democrats ran on ending the pandemic and rebuilding the economy and have left unfulfilled promises dangling on both counts. The pandemic’s trajectory is arguably worse now than it was six months ago. Even with more than half the country vaccinated, the delta variant of Covid-19 is still flourishing; the death count has been climbing steadily since midsummer, while the seven-day average of cases is close to where it was in late January. Republicans, meanwhile, have completely ceded any responsibility for governing or ending the pandemic—in fact, their strident opposition to masking and embrace of loony anti-vax conspiracy theories has made it significantly worse.

But for the past month, the Democratic Party has been defined by an overwhelming sense of inertia brought on by one of its factions. Given the Democrats’ extraordinarily slim margin of error, the loss of more than a few votes could kill both bills. Democratic leadership has attempted to solve this dilemma by tying the two together, since both need (nearly) every Democratic vote to pass. But the party’s moderates are possessed of the belief that some kind of watered-down version will curry favor with voters back home and are holding the Biden agenda hostage, essentially demanding that the bipartisan infrastructure deal be uncoupled from the $3.5 trillion budget so the former may be passed in full while the latter is whittled down—or tabled entirely.

Progressives have, so far, kept their end of the bargain and been team players; the moderates most assuredly have not. For months now, they have done everything they can to wriggle out of this deal, to stall its progress. They have demanded compromises and cuts; once they’ve received them, they’ve demanded more. Some, like Joe Manchin, are now openly calling for the party to hold off on taking up the budget until next year, which would all but guarantee its failure. These Democrats have become so afraid that doing anything to help the party’s chances in the midterm elections—to say nothing of their constituents—would hurt them politically that they have decided they would rather do nothing.

For months now, the party’s leaders and the Biden administration have coddled these moderates, to no avail. Their demands keep increasing, and their willingness to play ball keeps diminishing; they seem convinced that the progressives will be forced to vote for whatever thin-soup compromise the budget deal eventually becomes (and, most cynically, seem convinced that they will vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill even if they end up killing the budget). From both a policy and a political standpoint, the result is a mess. The moderates have damaged the party’s standing, as well as the president’s. They’ve increased the likelihood of a midterm bloodbath and will be the proximate cause of a shellacking. They’ve done nothing to communicate to voters that they care about the issue that helped them win in 2020—ending the pandemic—and instead have groused endlessly about taxing the rich and the deficit.

It’s still not entirely discernible what the moderates believe they’re accomplishing; they seem to have a naïve faith that apathy and austerity will help maintain their legislative majority and retain the White House. Where they’ve come up with that notion is a mystery, beyond their perennially broken political compasses and the pernicious influence of lobbyists. There is no Tea Party–like group stalking these members at home, ready to shout at them about the deficit at town halls. Republicans in Washington have barely updated their election-year charges of socialism on the march. Democrats could have the opportunity to go to their districts and enumerate the ways they’re bringing home the economic benefits and sharing the fruits of popular policies—infrastructure upgrades, child tax credits, and lower drug costs. The moderates would hem them in and leave Democrats empty-handed except for their initial effort to ward off the pandemic.

As Brian Beutler wrote, “In the centrists’ telling, their political fortunes are so fragile that they can be upended by the wrong protest-movement slogan, but so impervious that they can withstand gerrymandering, broken health-care promises, a divided party, and any number of other problems of their own creation.” They have gotten away with it, in part, because the media treats them as middle-American sages—whenever progressives obstruct the passage of a Democratic priority, they get characterized as effete Marxists, bent on making perfect the enemy of the good. But the party’s leadership bears some blame for allowing the process to be hijacked and the party’s reelection hopes to be so imperiled.

Ironically, it’s the moderates who have the most to lose; they, not the progressives, represent swing districts that could benefit from the largesse of these bills. But this faction has a backward way of thinking about the world we’re living in and the people who are living in it, and this has punctured their party’s momentum. This breakaway group believes that the moment calls for lawmakers to do as little as possible to help the country, and they are determined to have their way. No one seems to be willing to call them what they are: dangerous radicals bent on sinking the ship.