Kill the Bill

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 18: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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September 29, 2021 8:39 a.m.

Members of Congress have begun to say explicitly in the last couple days what I think has been clear for weeks and months. Kyrsten Sinema’s multiple trips to the White House yesterday just confirm it. She’s not negotiating about any of this in good faith. Joe Manchin is a huge obstacle for Democrats pushing their agenda. But the Manchin problem is still very different from the Sinema problem.

I had a conversation yesterday similar to a number I’ve heard over recent days: a business lobbyist explaining that yes, they want the infrastructure bill real bad and that their optimal scenario is that the infrastructure bill passes and the reconciliation bill goes down to defeat entirely. A separate irony is that most of those people – the ones who appear to have Sinema’s ear – seem entirely unable to grasp the implications for the Democratic party if that is indeed the final outcome. It will rip the Democratic coalition apart. Of course, in general, that’s not their concern or their problem. But it certainly means all the self-styled “moderates” they’re working with now will go down to defeat – both because of primaries but also just as the natural consequence of a Democratic rout. More business friendly Democrats in blue seats will also get replaced by more progressive members. I am consistently surprised how people whose whole job is politics, supposedly, seem to have so little grasp of its basic functions.

In any case, if you’re going to lose it is important to lose well rather than poorly. Doing so is a key way to actually win. But to win you have to be ready to lose well. Losing well is far better than losing poorly.

Back in 2004 and 2005, President Bush tried to partially abolish Social Security. There was huge pressure on Democrats to negotiate, to put up a counter-proposal, to get involved in the process to limit the damage. At the time, Republicans had unified control of the federal government. They could do the thing if they wanted to. Democrats finally settled on the right approach which was: no. No negotiations. No support. No nothing. Democrats couldn’t control the outcome. But they could clarify what was happening. Democrats support Social Security. Republicans want to abolish it.

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In the end, Bush’s plan collapsed. Democrats were ready to lose well and that helped them win.

But it’s worth thinking through the alternative scenario. What if Bush had in fact abolished most of Social Security. That would have been a policy disaster for hundreds of millions of Americans. But if the Democrats had been part of it it would have been disastrous for them as a party. The cases are very different but there are some similarities to now. If the upshot of the Biden presidency is that Democrats delivered the votes for Kyrsten Sinema’s infrastructure bill vanity project and got nothing else it will be profoundly self-discrediting for the Democratic party in addition to being a disaster for the climate future and much else. Democrats and the White House need to be ready to kill the infrastructure bill.

It is perverse and bizarre since the Democrats, though tenuously, now have unified control of the government rather than being a beleaguered opposition with no holds on any levers of power. How we’ve gotten to the point that they cannot collectively control the outcome … well, that’s crazy. But that’s where we are. Largely because of Kyrsten Sinema. But look at what we’re talking about here. Is the reward for her betrayal having the party she is betraying pass her infrastructure bill? That’s too crazy to allow to happen. It is a basic element of life for individuals that we must strive to confront with dignity things we cannot control. It shapes who we are. And something similar applies to political coalitions and parties.

Now there are potentially lots of ways to skin this cat. Maybe the House passes the bill but Speaker Pelosi declines to send it to the President until there’s movement on the reconciliation bill. Or the President would hold it for a week himself. As has been the case throughout this maddening year there are just too many factors that aren’t visible to us. Democrats will have to rely on Nancy Pelosi and others to make good decisions based on knowledge of details they cannot share. But to the extent we can be clear on goals, to the extent we must shape transitory tactics with a clear understanding of where we want to end up, a final outcome that is an infrastructure bill and nothing else is just not tenable. It leaves too many critical priorities unaddressed – especially climate – and makes a mockery of the whole Democratic coalition.

If it’s the BIF and nothing else, kill the BIF.

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