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This Is the Week for Democrats to Live Up to Their Stated Principles

After weeks of posturing, the party needs to come home, pass the Biden agenda, and honor its commitments to voters.

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema stands outside the U.S. Capitol.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Kyrsten Sinema famously doesn’t talk to the press. She typically scuttles wordlessly past the gaggle of reporters staked out near the elevators senators use to get to the chamber when there are votes; it’s even difficult for reporters to get on her media list. But if she ever consented to an interview with me, I know what I’d ask: What is it exactly, senator, that makes you a Democrat?

That’s what I’ve been thinking about as we approach this make-or-break week for the Democratic Party, because it’s really hard to figure her out. The same can sometimes be said of Joe Manchin, although he’s considerably less bewildering than Sinema; ditto Kurt Schrader, Scott Peters, and Kathleen Rice, the House trio who recently declared their servitude to Big Pharma, potentially wrecking what ought to be a major piece of the party’s agenda. A few other House centrists spring to mind as being occasionally maddening.

Democrats come in a lot of flavors, not all of them delectable. But two broad principles should unite them. The first is a commitment to social justice that is driven by an understanding of American and world history that acknowledges that bigotry and discrimination are real and systemic and recognizes that it’s necessary today to compensate for that past and oppose existing discrimination. The second is a commitment to government intervention in the economy, based on an interpretation of reality that holds that the market, left to its own devices, does not achieve “equilibrium” (a favorite neoliberal economists’ word) but rather creates all manner of inequities and inefficiencies that only government is in a position to correct.

Democrats will often disagree on the solutions needed to address these problems. But they should at the very least agree on these two points of analysis. If people don’t support social justice and government intervention in the market, it’s hard to imagine why they even bother being in the Democratic Party.

Let’s go back to Sinema. What makes her a Democrat? I really have no idea at this point. She was once a Green. In the Arizona state Senate, and as a candidate for Congress in a town-and-gown district, she operated mostly on the progressive end of the spectrum.

Today? She sure seems to belong lock, stock, and barrel to her big donors. As Daniel Strauss reported here last week, she’s raked in corporate campaign donations. According to The New York Times’ reporting, she appears to oppose an increase, any increase, in the corporate tax rate. Even Manchin is in favor of raising it to around 25 percent.

If you can’t go along with raising the corporate tax rate by a few points to fund universal pre-K, then what are you doing in the Democratic Party? If you favor corporations over low-income toddlers, you belong in the Republican Party. And that melodramatic thumbs-down Sinema gave to the minimum wage earlier this year was disgusting—an attempt to mimic John McCain, most of whose political views I didn’t care for, but at least he was an honorable human being and, when he issued his thumbs-down on Obamacare repeal, he was taking the right position.

I have a little more sympathy for Manchin than Sinema, given that he’s from a state Donald Trump won by 40 points and that, being from that state myself, I know his background. He comes from a prominent Democratic family. But that affiliation dates to the days when almost everyone was a Democrat, because of FDR and the (relative) prosperity the New Deal brought to West Virginia. Manchin’s family was a small-business family—they had a prosperous carpet company—and that codes Republican. And as The Intercept recently reported, he’s invested in coal, so his opposition to greening the economy is apparently not just about the perceived interests of his state. Still, Manchin has always voted Democratic when his vote mattered, so I always thought he more or less bought into the two basic principles I laid out above.

But now it’s hardly clear that he does. On the social justice front, he should not be playing these games with voting rights. Yes, he helped write the compromise legislation. But unless he’s willing to kill the filibuster for this issue, nothing he says on that score matters.  

And on the Build Back Better legislation, he seems to be proceeding from conservative assumptions. We’re looking at the prospect of the federal government injecting trillions of dollars of investments into the economy. There are two possible responses to this, grounded in different ideas about economic theory. The conservative Friedmanesque view is that this much government money will incentivize people not to work and will trigger inflation. The liberal Keynesian view is that these ideas—pre-K, childcare, family leave, free community college—are long overdue investments in working- and middle-class Americans, which will give the economy a positive jolt.

Everything Manchin has said indicates that he’s working from the conservative assumptions. Remember, he held up the Covid relief bill earlier this year at the eleventh hour because he wanted to shorten the time frame for unemployment benefits. His main concern in all this seems to be that the government is going to create a class of indolent layabouts.

There might actually be some truth to his position. As I wrote earlier this month, the pandemic has demonstrated that a lot of Americans have apparently decided that they no longer want to work at unrewarding jobs for low wages. That is a real dilemma. But there’s a Democratic solution to it: Raise the minimum wage! If the unemployed of West Virginia can suddenly earn $12 an hour at the dollar store instead of the current federal minimum of $7.25, which is a poverty wage, they’ll flock to those jobs.

This could be the week that Democrats began to turn 40 years of destructive economic assumptions on their head. I hope that’s how it all goes down. Even if the number on the reconciliation bill ends up being closer to $2 trillion than $3.5, well, it’s a start—a great kick in the right direction. But if it fails because a few Democrats opposed it from conservative assumptions, the Democratic Party will have some serious housecleaning to do.