This story originally appeared in Jacobin on Oct. 27, 2021.
It is shared here with permission.
The perennial dilemma for congressional progressives has always been that while they have a working moral conscience, their opponents don’t.
This fundamental quandary is at work yet again, as progressives, after gamely holding the line for months on the Democrats’ infrastructure bills, are now coming under intense pressure to swallow another loss, smile, and say thank you. As Senator Joe Manchin, the public face of the corporate-funded wrecking ball that’s been taken to the party’s once-ambitious plans, reportedly told Bernie Sanders behind closed doors, he’s willing to go without any of the reconciliation bill’s measures passing, let alone the tatters that are left of it, if progressives continue to insist on their $3.5 trillion framework.
So progressives are back in a familiar situation. They can either stand firm and, ultimately, make good on their threat to torpedo both parts of Biden’s infrastructure proposal—and, so, his entire presidential agenda—winning nothing for their constituents in the process. Or they can accept the watered down reconciliation bill and get something done for the country in a moment of profound insecurity, no matter how inadequate, while putting on a brave face.
The choice is clear: they should reject the party leadership’s advice to just pretend they’re “winning,” refuse to back this weakened package, and, if it comes to it, vote down the bipartisan bill, too. Consider why this is the most rational course of action.
The Case Against Guilt
It’s not an argument made lightly. The country and world are in a moment of profound crisis, and Democrats desperately need to use the brief window of power they have to show they can act to improve people’s lives. The fact that they’re going into the 2022 midterms with little to excite their base and stave off a right-wing comeback only adds to the urgency.
Normally, this would be the kind of situation perfectly designed to nag at progressives’ conscience and force them to accept less than they ideally should. But at this point, Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and the handful of right-wing Democrats hiding behind them have gone so far in dismantling the reconciliation bill, that there should be no moral agonizing by progressives.
Back in June, I argued that if it came time to play hardball, progressives wouldn’t “have to feel an ounce of guilt if they decide to torpedo this deal,” for several reasons: namely, that its climate provisions were already far below the level of investment needed to do much of anything to stave off planetary disaster; and that the provisions of the bipartisan infrastructure package that’s paired with it were so bad, they’d be doing working Americans a favor by killing it. That was back when the bill had already been nearly halved to $3.5 trillion.
Months later, with Manchin and Sinema having now hacked that compromise to pieces, whatever moral imperative existed for passing it has been completely wiped out.
The dire emergency of climate change—with scientists warning of a “ghastly future of mass extinction” and talking about a “code red for humanity”—was once the main reason to back the compromise bill, and used to be a red line for progressives. But coal baron Manchin has now successfully stripped the bill of every meaningful attempt to tackle the crisis, leaving some tax credits and $30 billion worth of spending a year, a sum not remotely serious for dealing with the issue. And he’s reportedly not done yet. This is unconscionable, especially when you consider this bill is widely acknowledged as the last chance for maybe a decade to take legislative action on this ticking time bomb.
It’s a similar point for the “human infrastructure” parts of the bill. The politically expedient rationale was that by making a positive difference in the lives of tens of millions of voters, the party would be rewarded in the 2022 midterms. But look at everything that’s been cut: no longer will Medicare eligibility be lowered to sixty years old, nor will the program be expanded to cover vision, hearing, and dental or be empowered to negotiate for cheaper drug prices; two free years of community college are gone; universal child care has been turned into a means-tested subsidy program that will spike costs for middle-class families; the popular child tax credit now looks to be means-tested, have a work requirement, and last only one more year; and Manchin’s now reportedly also demanding that Medicaid expansion be gutted, and that paid family leave be scaled back or cut entirely.
For those counting, that’s sacrificing working parents, middle-class families, the poor, young adults, and seniors, the most reliable midterm voting constituency. Never mind what will happen when Democrats yet again fail to deal with out-of-control drug prices, a promise they’ve been making for nearly thirty years and which they won back the House with in 2018. No one can argue with a straight face anymore that this bill is any sort of backstop against electoral annihilation.
Meanwhile, the bipartisan infrastructure deal that I called “worse than nothing” in June hasn’t changed. Still intact are its menacing provisions to find unemployment insurance “fraud” and to sell control of US infrastructure to Wall Street as Trump tried to do, at which point they’ll gouge ordinary Americans with more road tolls and other user fees. These outrageous provisions might have been worth swallowing if it came with what the reconciliation bill originally promised. But is what’s left really a fair trade for privatizing US infrastructure and attacking working-class Americans?
In other words, Manchin, Sinema, and the rest have eliminated their most powerful bit of leverage over progressives: their moral agony, and their concern about protecting democracy. Progressives no longer need to feel conflicted about sticking to their guns and torpedoing the entire thing.
The Benefits of Playing Hardball
There are actually quite a few gains for progressives if they take a page out of Manchin’s book and play hardball like this.
One is protecting their own credibility. Progressives have, rightly, made much of the fact that they haven’t rolled over under pressure like they’ve tended to do for years and years, and these negotiations were meant to herald a new era of progressive backbone, turning them into a real force that wouldn’t be pushed around anymore.
Acquiescing now after virtually every one of their red lines has been crossed, and all at the behest of a much smaller faction of corporate-bought lawmakers, would undo all of this, prove their most cynical detractors right, and ensure their threats are never taken seriously again.
Two, progressives shouldn’t forget they’re not the only ones with something to lose here. For all of Manchin’s posturing, remember the full sum of what he told Sanders last week, as recounted by Senator Chris Coons: “We should just pass the infrastructure bill and, you know, pause for six months.” [emphasis mine]
As Manchin let slip, he’s not actually “comfortable with zero.” In fact, he and his fellow naysayers are quite desperate to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, with its much-needed improvements to physical infrastructure and its corporate giveaways, because it’s what their corporate masters want. While opposing the reconciliation bill, corporate America—from the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to the National Retail Federation and many more big business groups — are fully behind that part of Biden’s agenda. Call Manchin’s bluff and see how much he sweats when he goes back to his corporate patrons empty-handed.
On top of this, progressives should thirdly keep in mind that digging in puts the onus on Democratic leadership to finally put pressure on this desperate right-wing bloc. Remember that if both of these bills fail—which they will, without every single Democratic senator and almost every House Democrat on board—Joe Biden potentially goes down in history as a failed president with only one significant legislative accomplishment.
This is a dire prospect for a legacy-minded politician like Biden, who’s dreamt all his life of being president and was reportedly thrilled earlier this year when the press declared him a bolder leader than Barack Obama, whose subtle disdain for him fueled years of quiet seething from Biden.
So there’s a strong case to be made that, especially in the reconciliation bill’s current hollowed-out form, Biden and conservatives like Manchin have much more at stake here than progressives do. Faced with not getting what they want against a steadfast progressive bloc, it’ll be their turn to make some concessions.
Only One Choice
In many ways, Manchin and the rest have done progressives a favor. Had they stuck to, say, just killing the clean electricity standard while leaving everything else in place, or only watering down one or two safety net provisions, congressional progressives might have been facing a truly difficult choice.
Instead, they’ve gone so far in undermining the bill that there’s little-to-no rationale for progressives to be morally blackmailed into accepting it. They should call Manchin’s bluff, use the party’s slim majorities to stand firm and block both of these bills, and leave the corporate Democrats in the corner they’ve painted for themselves until they’re ready to make concessions. Morally, tactically, and politically, they’d be right to do it. Anything else is not just a mistake—it’s a betrayal.