Policy vs Positioning Has Dems in a Stalemate

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). Getty Images/TPM Illustration
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September 22, 2021 9:18 a.m.

On Capitol Hill – among the Democrats alone since the Republicans have absented themselves from the process – we’re seeing one of those legislative stand-offs that seem insoluble and which, for the Democrats, raises the real risk of disaster. These crises tend to resolve themselves, eventually. Because both sides eventually see that they’re courting disaster and draw back from the brink.

But there’s something a bit different this time. And it’s worth teasing out what that is.

Yesterday Nancy Pelosi met with House progressives to try to get them to come down off their threats to sink the bipartisan mini-bill if “moderates” won’t agree to vote for the big omnibus reconciliation bill. This whole press framing about “moderates” versus progressives is actually misleading inasmuch as it appears to pit the Manchins and Sinemas against the AOCs and Jayapals. In fact, some version of the big reconciliation bill is the consensus position within the Democratic party with the exception of a couple senators and maybe a dozen members of the House tops. It’s really the great bulk of the party versus a couple handfuls of members in both chambers.

In any case, Pelosi met with the House progressives and they weren’t biting. And that’s not hard to understand since Manchin’s offer is essentially pass my bill now and we’ll see what happens with your bill. Maybe we’ll horse trade and come up with a reconciliation bill we can both agree on or maybe you just get nothing.

Here you get to the heart of the problem, the root of the impasse. If the ‘moderates’ had a concrete proposal for the reconciliation bill part of the two part package that could be negotiated. Maybe the negotiations wouldn’t succeed. But there could be a negotiation because you’d have two packages and the two sides could try to haggle out a middle ground of agreement. But they don’t have a proposal. First it was $3.5 trillion but with some unspecified cuts. Then it’s no more than $1.5 trillion. Then next it’s a “strategic pause” until next year. Certainly for the progressives but in fact for the vast majority of Democrats these aren’t negotiable points. They’re more existential. It’s something like I get my bill and you get the abyss. Or maybe you get some bill. But we’ll see which after you pass my bill. It’s not surprising there are no takers for that on the leftward side of the caucus.

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But really there’s something even more essential. The two sides aren’t so much disagreeing as speaking two entirely different languages. One side is talking the language of policy – specific programs with price tags and calendars for implementation while the other side is talking positioning and optics. It might as well be Aramaic and Icelandic.

One of the great frustrations for most Democrats on the Hill has been that Sinema and Manchin are such moving targets. The arguments and rationales are changeable, contradictory and even absurd. For Manchin one moment it’s the debt or it’s runaway inflation or work requirements or chimerical future COVID relief packages that money must be saved for. The ‘strategic pause’ is a good example of it. It’s not really comprehensible in legislative terms. It’s a reasonable position not to want any more spending at all. But a ‘strategic pause’ makes no sense. Sinema has her own version of the same nonsense. The clash is elevated by the fact that Sinema especially but Manchin too just aren’t policy people. Even they don’t know quite what they want. They just don’t want that much of it. But again, it’s the language of positioning. They’re backfilling policy explanations into positioning moves. Both are trying be the ‘moderate’ reining in the Democrats, splitting the difference. They’re playing to the beltway establishment’s love of ‘moderates’ and ‘bipartisanship’. It’s the language of positioning rather than policy in which you’re talking about specific programs rather than trying to stake out a position.

I remain cautiously optimistic that there will be some global deal, if only because the alternative is so catastrophic. But it’s not possible at all until there are actually specifics on the table. Otherwise the two sides are truly speaking two mutually unintelligible languages.

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