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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Behind the ‘Dems in Disarray’ Myth

Nathaniel Rakich shares some thoughts on “Why House Democrats May Be More United Than They Seem” at FiveThirtyEight:

Two factions of the Democratic Party in Congress are currently playing tug-of-war over the centerpieces of President Biden’s legislative agenda. Moderate Democrats have balked at the proposed $3.5 trillion reconciliation budget bill, attempting to delay a vote on it in the House and insisting that the price tag will have to come down in the Senate. At the same time, House progressives have threatened to block a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill unless the reconciliation bill passes first — with the current price tag intact. (The House is scheduled to vote on the infrastructure bill on Thursday.)

But it’s easy to blow these disagreements out of proportion. On one hand, they are certainly relevant in that they threaten to derail two potentially transformative pieces of legislation. But they do not mean that Democrats are a hopelessly — or even significantly — divided party. Instead, it’s really the narrowness of Democrats’ congressional majorities that makes passing big legislation difficult, as even a small number of defectors can make the difference in a bill passing or failing.

Rakich notes that “more stories will get written over the course of a long negotiation, which can lead to a media emphasis on the messy sausage-making process over the (often less acrimonious) outcome.” Further,

In fact, there’s good reason to think that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s current Democratic caucus is the opposite of in disarray….Democrats are (so far) the most united House caucus of the last three sessions of Congress. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Biden Score, which measures how often individual members of Congress vote in line with Biden’s position, 203 out of the House’s 223 Democrats1 have voted with Biden 100 percent of the time, and all but two have voted with him at least 90 percent of the time.

This makes the current Democratic caucus far more cohesive than both the current Republican caucus and the Democratic caucus during the 115th Congress (based on the Biden and Trump scores2 of the median 90 percent of their members), when Democrats were last in the House minority. Rakich adds, “it’s likely that the opposition of moderate Sen. Joe Manchin will force Democrats to lop off a trillion dollars or two from the reconciliation bill. (Manchin, though known as one of the biggest internal thorns in Democrats’ sides, has a 100 percent Biden Score.) A similar dance occurred with Democrats’ voting-rights bill earlier this year: The For the People Act was too far-reaching for Manchin’s tastes, so it was pared down into the less ambitious Freedom to Vote Act, which Manchin helped craft and is now likely to support.”

….Republicans were a bit more cohesive when they had the majority than they are now — but Democrats are a lot more cohesive now than when they were in the minority.

Rakich explains that “an open negotiation process like the one Democrats are currently in can leave outside observers with the impression that a party is divided even if the legislation being debated ultimately succeeds….Media coverage of the negotiations usually doesn’t help matters, either; according to research by political scientist Mary Layton Atkinson, the press covers controversial legislation far more often than it does bipartisan legislation, and that coverage generally focuses on the conflict and drama of the negotiations over the substance of the bill.”

Rakich pays tribute to Speaker Pelosi’s deft navigation in building legislative consensus among Democrats and concludes, “Negotiations, by definition, highlight disagreements, but the final proof will be in whether Democrats pass the infrastructure bill on Thursday (and, on some later date, the reconciliation bill)….In other words, it’s possible for a party to have divisions but not be divided — and a strong congressional leader like Pelosi can make that happen. “

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