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However the legislative gamesmanship playing out on Capitol Hill is resolved over the coming days, one thing is certain: The Democrats got themselves into this mess. They tried to enact an agenda as sweeping as the New Deal or Great Society though they enjoy margins of support vastly smaller than FDR or LBJ — and though their razor-thin majorities in both houses of Congress are themselves deeply divided between progressive and moderate factions.
The Greeks would have called it hubris. A Borscht Belt comedian would have talked of chutzpah. Either way, it’s hard to deny the Democrats have fallen prey to delusions of grandeur.
It’s easy to lose sight of this simple reality amidst the complicated dynamics of the two-bill strategy the party has deployed in recent months — with a “hard infrastructure” bill of roughly $1 trillion enjoying bipartisan support tied to a reconciliation bill of $3.5 trillion in social spending that’s mainly favored by the most progressive members of the Democratic Party, universally opposed by Republicans, and mostly disdained by Democratic moderates in anything like its current size. On one level, the Democrats’ struggles are a function of this incredibly awkward strategy for passing legislation.
But of course the party opted for such a strategy because of the underlying lack of consensus, in the country as well as among Democratic lawmakers, about the merits of spending so much money on such a vast array of new programs and initiatives.
That obstacle wasn’t present during past moments of bold expansion of the federal government, which is why those expansions looked very different. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 with 57 percent of the vote and 472 electoral votes. His party gained 97 seats in the House, giving the Democrats a supermajority, and 11 in the Senate, handing them control of the upper chamber of Congress for the first time since 1918. Democratic margins increased in the midterm election of 1934, giving the party supermajority control of the Senate as well. FDR then won re-election in 1936 with nearly 61 percent of the vote and 523 electoral votes, while the Democrats grabbed even more seats in Congress, expanding on their supermajorities.
The numbers were similar in 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson won a little more than 61 percent of the popular vote (the widest margin since 1820) and 486 electoral votes. LBJ’s coattails swept an additional 37 Democrats into the House and 2 into the Senate, giving Democrats supermajorities in both chambers.
Now, that’s a mandate to enact a progressive agenda.
President Biden’s solid win in November 2020 was comparatively modest. But he did much better than his party in Congress, where despite surprising, narrow victories in Georgia’s special Senate elections two months later, Democrats managed only to win control of the upper chamber by the single, tie-breaking vote of the vice president. The margin of victory in the House, meanwhile, is only a handful of seats better.
Why attempt to enact a sweeping legislative agenda under those conditions? The honest answer is that the progressive wing of the party demanded it. And who can blame them? Politics is a game of power, and the progressives want to use every ounce they can muster to do things they are convinced the country desperately needs. Fair enough. But with Democratic margins so tight, all it takes is a dissenter or two to thwart their ambitions.
We can imagine what would happen if Democrats chose a different path — one in which the party passed instead a much more modest or narrowly focused agenda by the widest possible (sometimes even bipartisan) margins, then tried on that basis to expand Democratic majorities in Congress in 2022 and 2024, enacting a series of small, incremental proposals and reforms along the way.
Progressive Democrats would naturally be dissatisfied with this on substantive grounds. But have they really made a compelling case for their current strategy?
The only sure path to a bigger majority, the progressives claim, is to go bold. Ram through a New New Deal or a Greater Society and voters will flock to the party, impressed by this ambition, delighting in the permanent support for childcare and lower drug prices and innovative programs to combat climate change and everything else as well. Sure, this is exactly the reverse of how the old New Deal and original Great Society were structured — win public opinion first, and then act on it — but circumstances are different now. The American electorate has been brainwashed by four decades of Reaganism to doubt the wisdom and desirability of bigger government. The only way to break out of that is to make a leap of faith and reap the political rewards on the other side.
This argument isn’t entirely wishful thinking. Progressives are probably right that, having promised to pass a massive spending bill, Democrats from Biden on down will be punished if they end up with nothing or next to nothing. (Voters tend to flee candidates perceived to be losers.) Then there are those widely circulating polls of specific progressive policy proposals. Many of them are quite popular, at least when they’re named and explained to respondents by pollsters who also happen to be, or to work for, progressives.
On the other hand, there’s the boatload of political science research showing most people know little about policy and vote on the basis of other considerations — and there’s the uncomfortable fact that all the COVID-related spending over the past nine months (including generous childcare-support payments Democrats want to extend as part of the reconciliation package) has had no appreciable positive impact on Biden’s foundering approval rating.
Progressives’ strategy is hardly unassailable. But who knows — it’s possible their gambit will work. Maybe passing two bills with a combined $4.5 trillion price tag on top of the additional trillions passed earlier this year will generate political dividends for Democrats rather than hand Republicans an issue they can use to seize control of Congress next year and the White House two years after that. Maybe, in other words, progressive Democrats will show they can create more progressive Democrats by governing as progressive Democrats in at least partial defiance of public opinion.
It’s possible. I just wouldn’t call it likely.