If the Dems Turn to the Center, They Will Lose to TrumpRoundup
tags: political history, Democratic Party, Joe Biden, centrism
Samuel Moyn is a professor of law and history at Yale and the author, most recently, of Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.
Congress’s passage on Friday of Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill would ordinarily have been a cause for celebration. But there is a good chance it was the beginning of the end of his presidency. After all, the bill’s final days marked a new consensus around a centrist set of economic remedies, chosen out of fears of what will supposedly happen when progressives with a transformative agenda exercise too much influence on the Democratic party agenda.
Only 10 months ago, Biden came into office with great expectations – but greater terrors. Even more apparent at the start than now, Biden’s presidency has been defined by fear rather than hope. With the assault on the Capitol earlier in the month, the culmination of a four-year deathwatch for American democracy, the emergency could hardly evaporate overnight. With Donald Trump temporarily ousted, his replacement also drew 1930s comparisons. The question “is he or isn’t he?” had been asked of Biden’s predecessor for four years. To redeem the country from the fascist, was Biden going to be Franklin Roosevelt?
Like FDR, Biden led Democrats who have rightly stressed economic transformation for the sake of the poor and vulnerable but also for the angry and disaffected voters of the stagnating middle. But unlike Roosevelt, Biden’s coalition is fragile and fissures emerged to threaten his success almost from the start – fissures that broke it apart definitively last week even in the midst of Biden’s infrastructure victory.
Other causes were forced to the margins along the way. Biden subordinated even critical fixes to American democracy, like reforms of courts and elections, to the economic agenda. As for his immigration policies, which mostly resembled the disgusting ones of prior presidents, they were treated with a partisan silence, provoking rage among the few principled enough to demand fewer cruelties and restrictions no matter who is imposing them. But Biden got a pass because enough agreed with the priority to address the economic reasons for Trump’s breakthrough, which are undeniable.
Yet in comparison to Roosevelt’s first “100 days” – which saw 15 major bills and gave the early phase of every presidency its name – Biden’s first 100 days were bogged down. A Covid-19 relief and stimulus bill was passed, adding $1.9tn in emergency spending to the $2.2tn of the first such bill signed by Trump in March 2020. But the real hopes fell on the big-ticket measures for “infrastructure” and welfare that Biden resolved to pursue separately. After all, the American Rescue Plan was only meant to be a temporary stopgap for an American society beset with deeper ills even beyond those that the virus laid bare.
The game was on. At first the debate seemed to be about how costly to make the bills and how to fund them. This was especially true for the American Families Plan, which was supposed to take steps towards an American welfare state – including by making relief measures for children in earlier bills permanent. Progressives in Congress, understanding the risks, were lauded for an early victory in August, refusing to back the first narrower infrastructure bill if Democrats abandoned the second more ambitious social spending bill. Centrists tried to tag progressives as the obstructionists. But the mainstream narrative remained that by holding infrastructure hostage, progressives were wisely keeping centrists from returning to form.
Even as it became clearer and clearer that the Democratic centrist senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and like-minded Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives, were doing damage to the ambition of the bills, a breakthrough after generations of Democratic austerity and neoliberalism still seemed possible. Then came the critical event that allowed for the centrist breakthrough last week: the election for Virginia governor last Tuesday.
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