As center-right Republicans active in Washington politics, we are perhaps not the ideal grief counselors for our Democratic friends who are distraught over their party’s failure to pass their top priorities through Congress, particularly the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan and the push to rewrite voting and election laws. But given our common interest in functional government and the survival of American democracy, we have some advice that may help our colleagues on the center-left move beyond denial and anger toward accepting the reality of the situation in which they find themselves.
The most basic political fact that our Democratic friends need to accept is that even though they won the 2020 presidential election fair and square, along with majorities in both houses of Congress, they never had a mandate to pass the biggest and most ambitious programs favored by their progressive base. Voters did not elect Joe Biden as president so that he and his party could radically transform the country. The Democrats’ congressional majorities are some of the narrowest in history, and the party wouldn’t have had a Senate majority in the first place without the fluky circumstances of the Georgia runoff elections in January. There simply isn’t majority popular support for the progressives’ vision of widespread systemic change, and in fact, many progressive positions are deeply unpopular.
It would also behoove Democrats to keep in mind that they retook the House majority in 2018 only because sufficient numbers of moderate Democratic candidates flipped suburban swing districts that previously had favored Republicans. Backlash against unpopular progressive positions cost Democrats many of those seats in 2020 and is one of several factors likely to cost them the majority in the House and perhaps the Senate in this year’s midterm elections. Moderate Democrats are the party’s majority-makers and will remain critical to Democratic success unless and until progressives command much more public support.
Progressives are now advancing a stab-in-the-back narrative blaming moderate Democrats for the party’s legislative defeats. Even aside from the self-destructive electoral impact of such charges, they reflect faulty assumptions about why the party’s top priorities didn’t pass. In particular, progressive anger against Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema is misplaced. Both were open about what measures they would and would not support, and both consistently maintained that they wouldn’t go along with abolishing the filibuster in order to pass legislation that couldn’t be included in a reconciliation package.
Given the impossibility of persuading Manchin and Sinema to do away with the filibuster on such bills, the only viable option for Democrats in an evenly divided Congress has all along been to: (1) get all Senate Democrats to agree, and then (2) persuade 10 Senate Republicans to join them. But Democratic leaders in both houses clearly consider the Trumpified Republican Party to be beyond persuasion or redemption. The result is that even when they get past the first step of achieving internal unity, they rarely attempt to get to step two. In most cases, they have crafted their highest-priority legislation without even bothering to talk to any Republicans, let alone trying to figure out what they might be willing to accept.
But this is why much of the Democrats’ top-priority legislation has been destined to fail. We’re not going to try to claim this is a golden era of bipartisanship — far from it. Some Republican legislators clearly have no interest in governing, a handful are unfit to hold office, and many are too afraid of the most extreme elements of their base to risk cooperating with Democrats. But Democrats don’t need a majority of Republican senators — they just need 10. And they are much likelier to get them if they already have some degree of support from Republicans in the House before their bills move to the Senate.
You wouldn’t know it from media coverage of Congress, but there are still some Republicans in both houses who are interested in deal-making, depending on the issue. And so, the only path for Democrats to pass non-reconciliation bills is to negotiate issue-by-issue with ad hoc, shifting coalitions of governing-minded Republicans.
Are we naïve to believe in the possibility of bipartisanship in the current era of take-no-prisoners political polarization? Simon Bazelon and Matthew Yglesias have pointed out that significant cooperation across the aisle still takes place in Congress, but mainly on issues that don’t attract much public attention. Congress deadlocks on the most controversial, intensely newsworthy issues because the media spotlight forces politicians into performative partisanship and makes compromise impossible.
But the “Secret Congress” can still come together on low-profile legislation that slips under the media radar because such agreement “isn’t seen as conceding ground to the other side. No Republican congressman is going to be primaried for voting for the low-salience Endless Frontiers Act, because it doesn’t count as ‘giving Biden a win.’” Behind-the-scenes negotiations this term led to the passage of bills that funded infrastructure, reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, boosted funding for zero-carbon energy research, and made Juneteenth into a national holiday.
The implication for Democrats in a narrowly divided Congress is that they ought to play down the partisanship of their proposals, casting them instead as common-sense reforms. They should look for ways that Republicans can gain credit with their own voters for supporting such proposals, for example, by presenting them as acts of fiscal responsibility or national security or “standing up to China.” They should pursue carefully defined, incremental reforms that poll well with the public rather than packages of big, sweeping proposals catering to the activist base. And they should remember that agitators almost always make bad legislators.
That approach will be difficult for many on the left to accept because their model demands the kind of noisy, attention-getting, uncompromising protest that gratifies activists and makes donors feel their money is having an impact. But under current conditions, that model leads only to legislative failure.
Our Niskanen Center colleague Samuel Hammond wrote recently in the New York Times that Democrats chose to let the child tax credit expansion expire last year because they assumed that if it was difficult to get Sen. Manchin to go along with their preferred approach “then convincing 10 or more Republicans to cross the aisle would surely be impossible.” But 19 Republican senators voted for the infrastructure bill last year, and Sen. Mitt Romney and others have either gone on record in support of child benefits or advanced their own child benefit proposals, some of which were more generous than President Biden’s plans. The Democrats almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to include their maximal aspirations for an unconditional child benefit in a compromise bill, “But given that the most likely outcome is now no expansion at all, failure to consider creative compromises makes the perfect the enemy of the good.”
There have been many analyses of why the Democrats’ year-long push to reform voting and election laws failed, despite the massive expenditure of political capital by party leaders (including President Biden) and tens of millions of advocacy group dollars. But the root cause of the failure was, again, the assumption that Sens. Manchin and Sinema could be pressured into abolishing the filibuster and that no agreement with Republicans was possible.
Sen. Mitt Romney later revealed that the White House had never even called him to talk about election reform efforts. What if, instead, Democratic leaders had approached him after the events of January 6 and appealed to him, as a patriot whose father was a leader in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, in a bipartisan effort to prevent future attempts to overturn an election? What if they had begun from their shared concern that American democracy is severely threatened and worked to address the points of maximal danger?
Romney would have pointed out that no Republican senator could agree to parts of the Democrats’ Freedom to Vote Act, even though that bill was the result of compromise between progressives and Sen. Manchin. It would have been a tough pill for Democrats to swallow to remove measures beloved by their activists but unacceptable to Republicans, including changes to campaign finance, voter registration, and redistricting. But the result could have been 10 Republican votes for a more narrowly tailored bill that would have closed off at least some of the means by which bad actors at state and federal levels are seeking to subvert democracy and nullify elections.
Instead, the Democrats once again came away with nothing — and at a crisis point in our American experiment when inaction (by both Democrats and Republicans who still believe in democracy) is irresponsibility verging on dereliction of duty. As a recent Washington Post editorial put it, “the fate of the nation’s democracy” may rest on current efforts by a bipartisan group of senators to reform the 1887 Electoral Count Act, the archaic law whose loopholes Donald Trump attempted to exploit in order to overturn his 2020 election loss. The Post is entirely correct to warn that “Congress should have no higher priority than fixing the Electoral Count Act, immediately.”
If Democrats want to salvage their legislative efforts rather than merely virtue-signal to their base, they will have to negotiate with Republicans. Romney, for one, believes that “there are a lot more than a handful [of Republicans in the Senate] that are willing to work with the president. We’re willing to work on issues that we care very deeply about,” including family security, education, health care, immigration, and reform of the Electoral Count Act as well as the Voting Rights Act.
But any genuine effort by Democrats to pass legislation on those issues will require them to have much more communication than they do now with Republican legislators and their staffs, along with better intelligence about who’s willing to bargain and on which issues. They will have to break up their big, baggy bills that reflect the wish-lists of Democrat-aligned interest groups and instead craft smaller bills that are tightly focused on their most popular measures — an approach that will have the further advantage of letting the public know exactly what the GOP leadership is blocking. And they will have to engage in compromises that inevitably will enrage the most intransigent elements of their base.
We know that this advice will be bitter medicine for the Democrats — we’ve been in similar situations, and we sympathize. We also know their instinct will be to reject it, if for no other reason than that it comes from Republicans.
But we’d remind our friends on the left that conservative hero Ronald Reagan, both as governor and president, had to make deals with legislatures that were partially or wholly controlled by Democrats. He understood that the purpose of politics is governing, which inevitably requires compromise, and he was willing to accept tradeoffs so long as they moved in what he considered the right direction. As he told aides on many occasions, “I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flag flying.” As Biden and the Democrats face the prospect of Republicans regaining the majority in one or both houses of Congress, and a potential threat to our democracy fast approaching in 2024, they would do well to emulate Reagan’s pragmatism and optimism.
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