(Watch the video for a monologue on this article and an interview with The Washington Examiner’s Conn Carroll on exactly what’s not working for the Democrats — and what it means for the future.)
Imagine the following scenario: One political party holds the White House, the House of Representatives and — by a razor-thin margin — the U.S. Senate.
They have big plans: major, sweeping legislation. There’s a problem, though. Or to be precise, there are four problems.
First, the president is very unpopular; we’re talking mid-30-percent approval. And the thing about unpopular presidents is they have a hard time getting people to do what they want.
Second, the politicians who make up this congressional majority have wildly different political concerns: They have different constituencies, different weaknesses, different personal ideologies. They’re not on the same page and it’s not even clear they want to be.
That leads directly to the third problem: They have no clear plan. What does their party want? What are their top priorities? What do they even believe in these days?
No one really agrees what should come next; they’ve been making all kinds of promises for the past four years but they never actually got together to make sure everyone was talking about the same thing — and all that would entail once back in charge.
Finally, there’s the fourth problem: a deep and abiding, years-long grudge between a crucial senator and a senior leader of the party.
What scenario am I talking about? I’m talking about July 2017, and the failed Republican effort to repeal Obamacare. Surprise: The dynamics in Washington are basically the same today.
First, President Joe Biden is deeply unpopular: We’re talking Bush 2005/New Coke-level approval; virtually the same disapproval President Donald Trump faced in July 2017. And remember — that’s just what the polls say. The polls also said the Democrats would sweep 2016 and 2020 in landslides, so the reality is probably even worse for Biden.
Second, the senators who make up Democrats’ zero-vote Senate majority have fundamentally different ideologies — and completely different realities back home.
Activists can yell from their kayaks all they like about party loyalty, remaking America, building back better, or what have you, but when it comes time to vote, Sen. Joe Manchin does not share Sen. Bernie Sanders’ political philosophy — and the voters of West Virginia do not remotely share the priorities of the good people of Vermont. West Virginian voters might be on board with another New Deal, but they don’t care for a Green New Deal, nor are they particularly interested in changing their pronouns.
Because of this, the two sides of the Democratic Party aren’t singing from the same songbook. When they negotiate, they’re speaking right past each other. Bernie wants a revolution, but a number of his colleagues would be happy just to have a decent economy again.
Of course, that whole dilemma is worsened by the reality that there’s not really a plan. For four years the Democratic Party subordinated everything else to getting Donald Trump out of office. Congratulations: mission accomplished. Now what? Seriously: What’s the big play? We hear a lot about “infrastructure,” but what does that mean?
Anything, apparently — and everything. Colleges are infrastructure, home health aides are infrastructure, dismantling existing highways is now infrastructure. They’ve changed the definition of infrastructure to mean “human infrastructure,” which is creepy-Washington-talk for “welfare.” Oh, and global warming or climate change or whatever.
It’s hard to blame Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for not wanting to talk about the details, though. She didn’t want to talk about the details of Obamacare when she passed that, either: It was very complicated and, as Pelosi famously said, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”
But it’s hard to tell what this bill even is. Reconciliation? Washington Democrats have somehow managed to find a war cry that’s less inspiring than “Skinny Repeal.” Truly amazing stuff.
Speaking of “Skinny Repeal,” here’s another problem: Everyone in power right now got there by making a whole lot of promises; that’s the nature of American politics and the reason there’s nearly always a backlash two years later when voters realize they’ve once again been had. But Sen. Kyrsten Sinema didn’t make the same promises Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made, which makes things awkward when those two have to vote on the same bill.
Funny enough, Sinema is the Democrats’ final problem; or more specifically, she’s Pelosi’s problem.
Few in the Washington press corps can remember anything before Jan. 6, so they might be forgiven for forgetting that Pelosi and Sinema go way back. Just more than six years ago, in October 2015, then-Rep. Kyrsten Sinema voted for Rep. John Lewis to be Democratic minority leader. It was nice. Political watchers called it “sentimental” — a “tribute to Lewis, 50 years after he marched on Selma, Alabama, with the Rev. Martin Luther King.”
Maybe true. But then Sinema voted for Lewis again the next year — and this time specifically against Pelosi, citing, “multiple election cycles where the House Democratic Caucus has not been able to win many of these tough seats across the country.” Seats, she pointed out, that looked a lot like hers. She called the party’s choice of Pelosi, “doubling down on a failed strategy.”
She didn’t vote for Pelosi in 2017 either. That’s three years in a row, now. Huh: Looks like a pattern.
Well, Pelosi hung on anyway. But she wasn’t magnanimous toward her internal party foes — you don’t keep an iron grip on a party into your 80s by letting minor slights pass. So despite every publication calling Sinema a “rising star” of the Democratic Party, in the U.S. House she wasn’t: Pelosi kept her bottled up on a single committee while most Democrats sit on two or even three.
But Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is now Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. She’s in the Big House, and Nancy can’t hurt her anymore (although it certainly seems she can hurt Nancy).
So what’s been the response from official Washington? Somewhat surprisingly, it’s been very, very stupid. They’ve let Democratic activists corner Sinema in the bathroom to scream at her, then handwaved it as “part of the process,” in President Biden’s words.
Democratic consultants, press advocates, and officeholders have also taken the posture of treating Sinema like she is mentally disabled. “Does anyone know what’s going on with her?” Paul Krugman asks in The New York Times.
“What’s wrong with Kyrsten Sinema?” asked his colleague Michelle Goldberg. What’s wrong, Goldberg says, is that Sinema is a narcissist who craves attention and gets it by bucking the party. Salon’s Amanda Marcotte complained that Sinema is “gaslighting” America for not eliminating the filibuster and, says she, “doesn’t care about saving democracy.”
Democratic consultants around D.C. have kept it up, telling folks that good ol’ Joe just needs to bring her down to the White House, show her how things work around here, and she’ll learn right quick.
So in September, President Biden brought Sinema and Manchin to the White House for a discussion. In the words of left-wing blog Wonkette, it was like they were in trouble at school. After the meetings, Biden spoke with House Democrats, who promptly leaked that he had complained about them like they were an unpleasant mother-in-law. “I hear your frustration,” the president said. “You don’t have to talk to them as much as I have to talk to them.”
There are major differences in what is at play today versus what was at play four years ago. For one, Obamacare was an entitlement a lot of people had gotten used to — and Republicans hate to touch those.
But the similarities — both politically and personally — are striking. And despite liberal bullishness and conservative wailing, with the threat of empty highway-fund coffers looming and the ability of the progressive caucus to hold out waning, the possibility of passing anything major is slim.