We Must Sail, Not Drift

The White House is Adrift and on a Path to Defeat
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13, 2021: President Joe Biden makes a brief statement to the press during a meeting with a group of republican senators, including Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV), right, to discuss the administration’s infrastructure plan, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 13, 2021. CREDIT: T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: U.S. President Joe Biden (L) makes a statement to the press as Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV) (R) listens during a meeting with a group of republican senators to discuss the administration’s in... WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: U.S. President Joe Biden (L) makes a statement to the press as Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV) (R) listens during a meeting with a group of republican senators to discuss the administration’s infrastructure plan in the Oval Office at the White House on May 13, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Pool/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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Politico has a “West Wing Playbook” newsletter that focuses tightly on the Biden White House. Their note this evening was “Biden: Speak softly and carry a big carrot”. The update looks at the topic I discussed below: what’s going on? what is the White House’s plan to move off the legislative drift that has become the order of the day. There are some ins and outs in their account. Biden’s comfort zone is persuasion rather than threats. That matches with what we know of him.

But my real takeaway from their write-up, albeit not what they say, is that really no one has any idea what’s going on. That’s not a failure of reporting. These folks and others like them have the sources and skills to ferret out the gist of what is in play. But you can’t find something that isn’t there. Chuck Schumer told his Senate colleagues last week that he’s going to start bringing all the big legislation to the floor this month. If Republicans are going to filibuster these bills they’re going to have to actually do it, not just get their way with the passive threat. This is the shift in gears that many Democrats have been waiting for. But I don’t think the White House has a plan for how to change the current dynamic.

Reports suggest that Biden and his top advisors think the public will reward Democrats if they can secure a bipartisan deal, or at least go the extra length in trying to find one. That idea is anathema to many Democratic partisans. But it’s probably true. Even as the electorate becomes increasingly polarized there are many voters who recoil from the reality of those divisions, even as they are part of them. There’s an aspiration to unity and pushing back against division in a significant part of the electorate. That was one of Biden’s appeals, both in the primaries and the general election.

But this is all beside the point. Voters probably would reward Democrats politically for finding some bipartisan compromises but not nearly so much as they will punish them for not getting anything done at all. Let’s talk specifics. Biden’s initial proposal was for $1.7 trillion and repealing the Trump corporate tax cuts to pay for much of the plan. There may be a political and electoral argument for compromising at $1.5 trillion or perhaps $1.2 trillion. But Republicans are basically locked at about $200 billion. And there’s really every reason to think the outcome of the current negotiations isn’t $200 billion or $300 billion but nothing happening at all.

So the argument that the public might reward Democrats for securing a bipartisan deal may be valid, at least at the margins. But it’s beside the point. Because there clearly is no deal that doesn’t involve giving up virtually everything Democrats want. So again, the political argument about bipartisan deals is just beside the point.

And in any case, the real issue here isn’t so much getting a bipartisan deal. It is that the Democrats have two Senators who will not agree to support infrastructure legislation without at least going the extra mile to get the vaunted bipartisan deal, or more specifically not until they say the White House has tried long enough. This is about Joe Manchin. It’s about Kyrsten Sinema, though in her case it appears to be more ego trip and aggression than ideology or in-state political reality.

The Politico note I referenced above suggests that Biden isn’t much for threats. He’s more carrot than stick. They talk about threatening to withhold funding to West Virginia or perhaps holding back political spending. That all seems like a throwback to the 1960s or something someone read about in a poli sci class in college. Those kind of threats harken back to an era when there wasn’t a highly polarized and pervasive national political media conversation. That kind of logrolling politics just don’t work any more in the contemporary political world. If Manchin were facing a primary and needed presidential or party support, or had a tough race in the near future, some threats on the electoral front might work. But he’s not. The Democratic party is more liability than advantage in his state and he’s not even up for reelection for almost four years.

All of it is irrelevant.

It’s really not about threats to Joe Manchin. And it’s not even about how important it is to try to find bipartisan deals. As is so often the case, it really comes down to incentives. In the current context, Biden’s political failure is a good thing for Republicans. Keeping spending and taxes as low as possible is also a good thing for Republicans. So they have literally zero incentive to come to a deal. Perhaps they don’t want to get blamed for making a deal impossible. So they can just run down the clock. All the incentives for Republicans are against a deal.

Manchin and Sinema argue that they want to end partisan divisions and that the existence of the filibuster is critical to making that possible. That is really absurd on its face. But let’s not get bogged down on that point. Their argument is that both sides need to compromise more. Okay, fine. They’ve given Democrats a big reason to compromise – if they don’t they can’t pass anything. Because they won’t have those two votes. But they haven’t placed any comparable incentive for the Republicans. In their most anguished moments they are looking at Republicans, preaching the need for compromise while adding more and more pressure on Democrats who already are offering concession after concession.

To illustrate the folly of this, let’s consider an alternative scenario. Manchin could come out tomorrow and say that on September 15th he will vote for the President’s $1.7 trillion plan along with a corporate tax hike. Be he’d much rather have a bipartisan compromise is willing to come a long way to the GOP position. That gives Republicans some incentive to find a compromise. I don’t think they actually care very much about spending. But they care about corporate taxes. Leave it up to them. Would that get to a deal? I don’t know. But it would create incentives for one.

I’m sure none of this is lost on anyone at the White House. I hear people saying that Biden needs to call Manchin up and chew him out or threaten or just demand. But the hard fact is that the White House needs Manchin and Manchin doesn’t really need them. He has all the leverage. I don’t think there’s a good solution to this problem.

But defeat through action is always better than defeat through impotence. If you’re likely to lose it is better to structure the engagement on your own terms than to drift and await the action or inaction of others. This is true both as a dignified and ethical approach to life and as the best course to achieve a positive result. Biden will have to start placing some limits on the course of events. I don’t think he can allow Joe Manchin to decide when the negotiations have run long enough, which seems to be the case now. I think he’ll have to move on to passing his own bill. Then Manchin will have to decide whether he votes for or against it. It’s entirely possible he’ll do the latter. But then we will at least know where everyone stands. And that’s a better way to go down to defeat than path we’re currently on.

Perhaps there’s a better way, a better strategy. In fact, I’m pretty certain there is one. But to know what that is you really need to know all the details from the inside. What Manchin is saying, what other Senate Democrats are saying, even what the Republicans are saying. In other words, for us to know how to proceed we’d need to know all the stuff the White House – fairly understandably – isn’t telling us.

Taking charge of the situation doesn’t ensure victory. But it’s a better shot at it than the current drift. And in any case, it’s better to lose on your own terms than the current death of a thousand cuts.

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