Biden Is Having His Cake and Eating It Too

A Reply to Alex Pareene
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 13: U.S. President Joe Biden waves as he walks out of the White House on July 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden is traveling to Philadelphia where he will deliver a speech about protecting the r... WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 13: U.S. President Joe Biden waves as he walks out of the White House on July 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden is traveling to Philadelphia where he will deliver a speech about protecting the right to vote at the National Constitution Center. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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August 8, 2021 11:35 a.m.

The much-heralded bipartisan mini-bill actually seems on its way to passage in the Senate. On the critical (and mind-numbing) vote to allow a majority vote, 18 Republicans ended up voting in the affirmative. It now seems very likely that Biden will get his bipartisan deal while also managing to pass close to his entire fiscal, infrastructure and climate agenda. If that happens – and it is likely to happen notwithstanding a few more months of haggling and drama – it will be a major, major accomplishment.

Yet in a guest opinion piece Friday in The New York Times Alex Pareene argued that it is in fact a “pyrrhic victory in a broken Senate.” I’m almost never in the practice of responding to people in the Editors’ Blog. But I wanted to do so in this case because Pareene is a gifted writer and incisive political observer. So it’s important to explain why he’s wrong.

To understand his argument, you should certainly read his essay. But I would summarize his argument in three parts. First, it is highly uncertain that the extensive reconciliation bill will actually pass, in which case you’re left with a bipartisan bill that is vastly insufficient to what is needed on every front and dramatically less than Democrats say is necessary. Second, that same six months-plus effort shows that, despite the rapid-fire party line vote on the COVID relief package, Biden and the Democrats actually haven’t learned the key lesson of the Obama years, which is to act boldly and quickly and not allow Republicans to slow or stymie your progress with bad faith negotiation. Third, the lengthy and agonizing process of negotiating this package, which will end up taking most of 2021, comes at the expense of critical legislation like the PRO Act (unions) and the For the People Act (democracy).

The first point is easiest to deal with because I think Alex is simply wrong. It’s a prediction about the future. He or I could be right. We’ll know in six months. But it seems wildly pessimistic and not backed by the available facts to assume a very large reconciliation bill won’t happen. That’s not just aspirational thinking. The two bills are moving in unison and support for one is premised on promises from other Democrats about support for the other. The mini-bill wouldn’t be moving forward if members of the Democratic caucus weren’t confident in their colleagues’ commitments to support the much larger reconciliation bill. The mini-bill will die in the House regardless if those commitments don’t pan out.

Alex says there’s no policy logic in dividing this package into two bills. And he’s absolutely right about that. But the scale and importance of the package is so great that if that’s the cost of getting it done that really seems fine. If the overall package passes, who cares? Basically the Democratic coalition is in the process of having its cake and eating it too. Those who think it’s important to have a “bipartisan” win get that bipartisan win while they pass the rest of the agenda with 50+1 votes. Like I said, having their cake and eating it too.

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The second and third arguments are wrong in more significant and complicated ways. But they both come back to a simple point. Democrats managed only a 50 seat quasi-majority, with the Vice President’s tie-breaking vote. (Looking at you Maine and North Carolina Democrats!) So they need literal unanimity on every vote to do anything. And that 50 vote caucus has at least two members firmly wedded not only to the filibuster but to the cult of bipartisanship and in more ambiguous ways more right-leaning policy positions.

Put sharply, it’s Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema’s fault.

The argument to the contrary – which is ubiquitous and not unique to Pareene – is based on a rhetorical slight of hand by which the opposition of Manchin and Sinema and the compromises required to work around their opposition is repackaged as what “the Democrats” think or believe in or what they’re choosing to do. For that to be true, it must be the case that the majority of the caucus, if it chose to, could simply force these two to vote with the rest of their colleagues. That premise is clearly false.

Pareene argues that the slog from April til now shows that Democrats didn’t actually learn the key lesson of the Obama years – don’t engage in negotiations with bad faith actors. Use the power you have to enact your agenda. That’s all that matters. If you know my thinking, you know I agree that that’s the lesson. But you can’t implement that lesson without 50 votes. At least two senators told their colleagues right after the COVID relief bill passed that they would not support the same approach on infrastructure spending. They insisted on sounding out bipartisan compromise. There’s a myth that if you really mean business you can force recalcitrant Democrats into line. But that’s not true. The price of getting 50 votes for a big fiscal/infrastructure/climate package was a lengthy process of negotiation with Republicans. Stupid? To me, absolutely. But my frustration doesn’t produce 50 votes. And unfortunately it doesn’t for Biden or Schumer or anyone else.

The important point is that this doesn’t signify some basic rot or non-getting-it on the part of Democrats, Senate Democrats, the Biden White House or any related group. They simply don’t have the votes. If Democrats wanted it to be otherwise they should have gotten it together and elected more senators in Maine, North Carolina and elsewhere. Nor is this mere semantics. Telling yourself that you keep voting for “the Democrats” only to see “the Democrats” make the same old mistakes over and over again is a recipe for demoralization. Conflating these points is not only inaccurate but toxic as well.

This shorthand is true in the very limited sense that when Democrats go to the polls they’ll have to make their arguments on the basis of deliverables. They won’t be able to get into the intricacies of their tiny majority and recalcitrant ‘moderates’. But as a way to understand where the party is, what it’s trying to do and lessons learned it’s sophistry.

Now there is an asterisk here. President Biden also wanted to try to wrangle some bipartisan agreements. In part that was characterological and tied to his history in the Senate. He and his advisors also believed – and still believe – that if he could chalk up one bipartisan agreement that would help him politically in 2022 and 2024. He may be right about that. In fact, all things being equal, I think it’s right that a President will be rewarded for forging a bipartisan coalition for big legislation. The question is whether you make that a condition. Getting the right result is infinitely more important than whether you pass it on party line vote. The result is what voters will judge you on. If you can have your cake and eat it too, awesome. But what you pass, however you pass it, is really what matters.

All evidence tells us that the White House and – even more important – the Senate Democratic leadership pursued this path because that was a prerequisite for securing 50 votes for the overall package. The idea that the driver of this decision was being wedded to the old ways of the broken Senate is belied by really every bit of evidence we’ve seen over recent months. (This claim is akin to those insider publications claiming a few weeks ago that Biden’s position on the filibuster is actually identical to Manchin’s – nonsense in the service of a novel storyline.) It was simply the only viable path to passing the package. That may mean that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema suck (and between us, it does mean that – especially with the preening phony Sinema). But that doesn’t change the math or the need for their votes. Most importantly, it’s not evidence that any of this is Biden’s or Schumer’s or all but a couple other Senate Democrats “preferred way of doing business” that they were eager to show “still works.” That’s an enervating statement of pessimism flung in the face of the bastioned stone walls of all the available evidence. It’s simply not true.

Now finally to the last point. The last six months of negotiating and ganging and recurrent drama haven’t been fun. I’ve said as much and worse repeatedly. But if they end up getting what they wanted is the delay really the end of the world? Pareene argues that it’s actually close to the end of the world because a big infrastructure package could have passed in the spring leaving months to push other critical agenda items like the For the People Act, the Pro ACT and more. Again Pareene and I agree on the importance of the legislation. To me the truly critical thing is the prohibitions on partisan redistricting contained in the For the People Act. But it’s not true that Biden could have been making progress on these other bills with the time freed up from bipartisaning.

Those bills haven’t happened yet because they can’t happen without 50 senators making them possible by ending or defanging the filibuster. And those votes aren’t there. Not yet at least. We’re back to the same enticing fantasy that if you just mean business enough these recalcitrant senators will fold. Lyndon Johnson, with his looming, personal-space-invading leans are usually invoked here as a proof point. But while Johnson was a master of inappropriateness and cajoling, his power stemmed from the fact that when he became President he had a 65 seat majority in the Senate and by January of 1965 a 68 seat majority. He got his way because he had the numbers.

Biden focused on fiscal/infrastructure/climate both because he thought those were the most important and because the rancid peculiarities of Senate procedure provided a viable path to accomplishing them. The idea that the time spent nursing along this two-part deal would have produced progress on these other bills is a claim with no evidence and actually all evidence against it. There was no path on elections and one complicated path on spending. They took the second path. The best version of this argument is that despite all the evidence to the contrary there was some extra inducement or pressure that would have gotten the two Senators to play ball. We can’t prove that’s not true. But absent a clear and specific argument it’s really no more than a self-serving and non-disprovable assertion.

I am cautiously pessimistic about further major legislation in this Congress after the infrastructure bills pass. But Biden is at least marginally better positioned to wrangle them out of recalcitrant Democratic senators having worked with them on infrastructure than he would have been stiffing them.

At its best, Pareene’s argument amounts to this: Don’t get excited. None of this means the Senate isn’t still broken or Democrats did anything to fix it.

He’s right. The Democrats had 47 or 48 votes to fix the Senate or make a start of it. That wasn’t enough. What they’re on their way to doing is passing close to the entire agenda even with it still being broken. That’s a huge and historic accomplishment in policy terms and no mean feat in legislative handiwork. The aim of passing a big spending bill isn’t to fix the legislative body. It’s to pass the bill. They’re passing the bill.

A lot could still go wrong of course. We can almost guarantee two or three months more of posturing and drama. Pareene structures his argument around the suggestion that after all this maneuvering and patience Democrats will likely get stiffed on most of their fiscal agenda. That allows the argument for a “pyrrhic victory” to hold together. But he’s very probably wrong about that, which I suspect even he likely knows. If he ends up being right, the whole picture will look very different. But to paraphrase the old saw, hopelessness is not a plan.

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