Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

When Will Progressives Accept Accomplishment?

The risks of loose talk about purging or punishing Democratic moderates like Joe Manchin.
March 2, 2021
Featured Image
U.S. President Joe Biden addresses the nation about the new coronavirus relief package from the Rosevelt Room of The White House on February 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden urged the Senate to quickly pass his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, which the House quickly approved earlier today (Photo by Samuel Corum-Pool/Getty Images)

Barely a month into his presidency, Joe Biden is on the cusp of passing a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package which accelerates testing and vaccination; fortifies Obamacare; buttresses struggling businesses; funds cash-starved schools, states, and cities; pauses evictions; transforms the child tax credit into direct monthly payments; supplements unemployment benefits; and distributes $1,400 checks to most Americans. Its enactment, the Center on Poverty and Social Policy estimates, could cut child poverty by 58 percent in 2021.

The bill is supported by a substantial majority of Americans, and its passage would represent a landmark achievement for the new president and his party. So why are so many progressives so unhappy with a bill that helps so many?

The immediate answer lies in the procedural thickets of the Senate, and its impact on progressive hopes to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour as part of the bill. In an entirely unsurprising ruling, the Senate parliamentarian last week determined that the increase did not fit within the ambit of budget reconciliation—the legislative maneuver which allows certain fiscal proposals to pass by a simple majority, thus avoiding a Republican filibuster and its requirement of a 60-vote supermajority.

Furious, congressional progressives demanded that Vice President Kamala Harris override the parliamentarian’s ruling in her capacity as presiding officer. When Biden and Harris declined, many were incensed. Case in point, here’s Rep. Ilhan Omar:

That last gets at a reality which transcends arcane procedures: Moderate Senate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema do not support such an increase—or abolishing the filibuster.

Progressives insist that Biden strongarm the two senators, all but charging him with cowardice. This ignores two unavoidable truths.

First, the Senate is divided 50-50: Because Republicans unanimously oppose the relief bill, Biden needs every Democratic senator. Second, Manchin and Sinema have their own constituency to consider—the electorates of West Virginia and Arizona.

Some progressives suggest a simple answer—purge them. Witness activist Yvette Simpson on This Week with George Stephanopoulos: “We can organize all of the working-class West Virginians who need this bill. . . . If Joe Manchin wants to be a Republican, let him be a Republican. We will play a Democrat against him.”

Here’s the problem: If Joe Manchin switches parties, Mitch McConnell becomes majority leader, and nothing progressives like will ever reach the Senate floor.

Nonetheless, a new progressive PAC called No Excuses proposes to primary Manchin and Sinema. Before they do so, a few considerations:

West Virginia is perhaps the most conservative state in America. Manchin is the only Democrat elected statewide—in 2018, he won by 3 percent; in 2020, Donald Trump carried the state by 39 percent. If progressives primary Manchin, they will weaken his chances in a general election. But should Manchin turn Republican, West Virginians would re-elect him from beyond the grave.

Meanwhile, Arizona is a battleground state. Biden barely carried it in 2020; Sinema won an exceedingly close race in 2018 by attracting swing voters. She must pick her issues with care, and any progressive who beat her in the primary would almost surely lose to a Republican.

And Democrats can’t afford to lose either seat.

Further, progressives often overrate their appeal to the broader electorate—and even to Democratic primary voters. In 2016, they complained that Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders because the party establishment put its thumb on the scale. The prosaic truth is that Clinton won 3.7 million more primary votes.

In 2020, Biden’s margin over Sanders was a crushing 9.4 million ballots. One strains to imagine that Sanders could have defeated Trump.

Similarly, in 2020 Democrats squeaked out the House because conventional Democrats won swing districts, while most progressives won primaries and general elections in safely blue districts. For Democrats to retain control in 2022, they must carry Republican-drawn districts dominated by moderate suburbanites. If progressives want more representation in Congress, better to primary Democrats in bright blue states and districts.

Finally, to succeed in 2022 and 2024 Democrats must present a record of legislative accomplishment. They can only do so with a broad coalition of legislators suited to their constituencies—including Manchin and Sinema. That’s how they’ll pass the pandemic relief bill, barely.

Let’s stipulate to the progressives’ case for action: The minimum wage is shamefully low, and the filibuster suffocates majority rule. But the way to change this is what Democrats failed to do in 2020: elect more candidates in closely contested purple states like North Carolina and Maine, and red states like Iowa and Montana. No doubt the Senate is an undemocratic anachronism which unduly advantages Republicans, but it’s embedded in the Constitution, and here to stay.

In contemplating this column, I observed to a friend that politics is a business for grownups. In response, he emailed a statement of purpose written by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell when they founded The Public Interest in 1965:

To help all of us, when we discuss issues of public policy, to know a little better what we are talking about—and preferably in time to make this knowledge effective…

Such an emphasis is not easily reconcilable with a prior commitment to an ideology, whether it be liberal, conservative, or radical. For it is the nature of ideology to preconceive reality; it is exactly such preconceptions that are the worst hindrances to knowing what one is talking about.

At a time when our common mission should be—must be—restoring the effective governance necessary to reviving our wounded democracy, truly knowing what one is talking about is an indispensable prerequisite. Ideological rapture is no substitute for reality—or accomplishment.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.