After months of reading and writing about Democratic congressional battles over infrastructure and reconciliation, I offered a bit of a historical corrective at New York:
If you follow the buzz in Washington, you would think there are massive divisions in the Democratic Party between “progressives” and “centrists” that threaten to blow up Joe Biden’s agenda. The “centrists” in particular have been troublesome by insisting on the shrinkage of said agenda, both quantitatively (various demands to reduce the price tag on the Build Back Better budget-reconciliation package) and qualitatively (complaints about too much climate-change activism or too many new entitlements or too little means-testing or too many taxes).
But lost in all the bickering and hostage taking is the fact that Democrats in Congress are almost certainly more united than they’ve ever been. And there are a lot more “centrists” working quietly in harness with party leaders and progressives than are out there making demands at press conferences.
There are two major groupings of Democratic centrists (or “moderates,” a term used almost interchangeably) in the U.S. House: the Blue Dog Coalition and the New Democrat Coalition. The Blue Dogs have eternally made “fiscal discipline” a signature issue for their membership and have in the past been more than willing to stand up to party leaders. Of the nine “rebels” led by Josh Gottheimer who insisted on a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill before they would countenance a reconciliation bill in the big blowup in September, eight were Blue Dogs (plus, Blue Dog co-chair Stephanie Graham made some sympathetic noises). But ten Blue Dogs stayed out of the rebellion.
The minority status of the rebels becomes even clearer if you look at the New Democrat Coalition, a newer group that was once considered close to the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council (the famously controversial organization that coined the “New Democrat” brand). There are 95 NDC members in the House. Nine of them (ten if you count Murphy) were among Gottheimer’s rebels. Fully 85, including all the group’s leadership, were not.
In the Senate, every member is a caucus, so you don’t tend to have factional groups. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have been the hostage takers and naysayers among “centrist” Democrats. But think about all the other “centrists” who haven’t been issuing demands or kicking and screaming about the Build Back Better package. I would count a lot of Senate Democrats as conspicuously moderate over the years: Michael Bennet, Tom Carper, Chris Coons, Dianne Feinstein, Maggie Hassan, Jeanne Shaheen, John Hickenlooper, Tim Kaine, Mark Kelly, Amy Klobuchar, Jon Tester, and Mark Warner. Maybe some of them sympathize with Manchin and Sinema on this or that issue. But they aren’t out there disrupting Democratic unity, are they?
In fact, if you look back at legislative challenges faced by recent Democratic presidents, the relative loyalty of today’s brand of “centrists,” becomes plainer. In 1993, Bill Clinton, himself a stalwart of the DLC who would drive some progressives batty, pushed a budget-reconciliation bill through Congress that had already been significantly pared of progressive provisions before it was introduced. In the end, though, Clinton lost 41 House Democrats and six Senate Democrats (nearly all of them conspicuous moderates or conservatives) who joined Republicans in voting against the legislation.
In 2009, Barack Obama had to deal with well-organized centrist Democrats in both chambers to get his budget enacted; the complex structure of Obamacare was one legacy of the compromises he had to accept after Joe Lieberman, among others, killed the “public option” before it was even incorporated into legislation. Fifteen Senate Democrats worked together to reduce the overall cost of the budget. In the end, 20 House Democrats voted against the package despite a host of accommodations.
The bigger picture is that in recent decades, ideological polarization has consolidated left-of-center voters and pols in the Democratic Party while right-of-center voters and pols have gone Republican. And partisan polarization has greatly reduced the number of ticket splitters. Both forces tend to enhance party unity in Congress. In 2008, despite Obama’s big national victory, 48 Democrats were elected in House districts carried by John McCain. In 2021, there are only seven House Democrats representing districts Trump won last year and only three from districts Trump carried by more than two points. The real outlier among House Democrats is Jared Golden of Maine, whose district went for Trump by seven points. Is it any wonder he’s one of the most vociferously adamant rebels against Biden’s budget bill? Or could anyone be surprised that Manchin isn’t “loyal to Biden” when Biden got less than 30 percent of the vote in West Virginia?
The real problem for Democrats in 2021 isn’t ideological disunity: It’s their shaky control of both chambers, which tempts individual House and Senate members to set themselves up as power brokers and posture for swing voters and wealthy and powerful interests back home.
After the 1992 elections, Clinton’s Democrats held 257 House seats and 57 Senate seats. After the 2008 election, Obama’s Democrats held 257 House seats and 59 Senate seats (which would soon become 60 when Arlen Specter changed parties). Now, Biden’s Democrats control 220 House seats and 50 Senate seats. Even a very unified party will have problems with such a small margin for error and that much incentive for factional or individual demands. And those who treat the current tensions as some sort of inherent “Democrats in Disarray” problem may be forgetting how much trouble Republicans had managing small congressional margins in 2017 and 2018. Remember the Obamacare repeal that never happened?
The cure for Democratic “disunity” isn’t expulsions or an imposed ideology; it’s to win bigger margins in Congress or to lose majorities altogether. Difficult as the status quo undoubtedly is, all Democrats would prefer the turbulent exercise of power to no power at all.