The Memo: Progressives exult in new-found power

Progressive Democrats are celebrating a moral victory this weekend, even as the outcome of the broader battle to enact a huge social-spending bill remains in doubt.

Left-wingers say a dramatic week has shown they have far more muscle within the party than they have enjoyed in a generation — and that they’re willing to use it.

The decision by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMcCarthy raised 0K after marathon speech Davis passes on bid for governor in Illinois, running for reelection to House Feehery: Why Democrats are now historically unpopular MORE (D-Calif.) late Thursday night to postpone a scheduled vote on a $1 trillion infrastructure package was seen by the left as a triumph over their most conservative party colleagues.


Progressives on Friday pushed back hard against a burgeoning media narrative that the postponement of the vote amounted to a major setback for President BidenJoe BidenCDC working to tighten testing requirement for international travelers On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Manchin seeks 'adjustments' to spending plan MORE.

Instead, they said, it was a step closer to their goals and his.

“The mainstream media has it wrong,” Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Pence-linked group launches 0K ad campaign in West Virginia praising Manchin Senators huddle on path forward for SALT deduction in spending bill MORE (I-Vt.) tweeted. 

The delay in the infrastructure vote, Sanders said, amounted to “a major step towards passing the most transformative piece of legislation since the New Deal. There can be no infrastructure bill without a strong reconciliation bill.”

The so-called reconciliation bill is the one progressives most care about. Even if its scale comes down significantly from the original mooted sum of $3.5 trillion, its provisions — tuition-free community college, expanded Medicare, paid family leave and action on climate change — amount to a progressive wish list.

Progressives don’t want to back the more modest infrastructure bill unless they can be sure there will be action on the larger package. This stance has placed them in stark opposition to centrist House Democrats led by Rep. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerFive takeaways: House passes Biden's sweeping benefits bill Dems brace for score on massive Biden bill Democrats bullish they'll reach finish line this week MORE (D-N.J.) who have long sought to de-link the two proposals.


The bottom line is that the progressives have won this battle of wills — at least for now.

President Biden went to Capitol Hill to talk to Democrats on Friday afternoon, but he is said to have applied no real pressure to pass the smaller bill immediately.

“For the first time in a considerable period we have seen progressives stand together and demand something,” Corbin Trent, a former communications director for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHouse progressives urge Garland to intervene in ex-environmental lawyer Steven Donziger's case Boebert and Omar fight leaves GOP scrambling Dearborn office of Rep. Debbie Dingell vandalized MORE (D-N.Y.), told this column. Trent now runs a progressive political action committee, No Excuses.

People across the left praised the head of the Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season 91 House Dems call on Senate to expand immigration protections in Biden spending bill Democrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos MORE (D-Wash.), and her colleagues for standing firm — or as their own slogan put it, holding the line.

Mark Longabaugh, who worked as a senior adviser to Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, told this column: “One of the things that progressives have lacked in the past is a certain toughness in their political game. Now progressives are displaying it.”

Longabaugh added: “A lot of us were worried that they were going to blink — and they didn’t. I think they have the upper hand now.”

The upper hand does not guarantee victory, of course. 

The fate of the larger social spending bill remains highly precarious, especially in the Senate where Sens. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Manchin seeks 'adjustments' to spending plan Pence-linked group launches 0K ad campaign in West Virginia praising Manchin Democrats push tax credits to bolster clean energy MORE (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaPence-linked group launches 0K ad campaign in West Virginia praising Manchin Schumer eyeing Build Back Better vote as soon as week of Dec. 13 Bottom line MORE (D-Ariz.) have been adamant that they cannot support a $3.5 trillion top-line. Manchin has indicated a willingness only to go to $1.5 trillion, while the specifics of Sinema’s position are shrouded in mystery.

But as negotiations plow on, progressives point to one huge difference from past struggles: They have the president on their side now.

Biden has pushed hard for the passage of both bills, even as he has left leeway for compromise on the scale of the larger, social spending measure.

Progressives have hammered home that point, casting themselves as protectors of Biden’s agenda and painting conservative Democrats as its would-be destroyers.

That is in stark contrast to the progressive experience for most of the past generation. 


Even though many progressives were enthused by President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHead of North Carolina's health department steps down Appeals court appears wary of Trump's suit to block documents from Jan. 6 committee Patent trolls kill startups, but the Biden administration has the power to help  MORE’s 2008 campaign, they were later dismayed that the Affordable Care Act did not go as far as they would have liked. 

The Obama administration was also populated by prominent anti-progressives like Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers, while one Obama press secretary, Robert Gibbs, complained publicly about “the professional left.”

Things were even worse for progressives during Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMaxwell accuser testifies the British socialite was present when Epstein abuse occurred Epstein pilot testifies Maxwell was 'number two' in operation Federal judge changes his mind about stepping down, eliminating vacancy for Biden to fill MORE’s presidency. Clinton had risen to power partly by casting himself as a centrist antidote to Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale, more liberal nominees who had lost presidential elections. 

In the Oval Office, Clinton backed some causes that horrified progressives, including welfare reform and financial deregulation.

Clinton also famously declared in his 1996 State of the Union address, “the era of big government is over.”

A quarter-century later, it looks like rumors of the death of progressive liberalism were greatly exaggerated.


“You can trace and track the change for at least 20 years,” said progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini. “But certainly the two Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns have emboldened and strengthened the progressive hand.”

Tasini added that, with respect to the big social spending bill, “you could not have imagined Joe Biden producing this kind of bill 20 years ago.”

There are many hurdles yet to clear. But progressives believe they are on the cusp of a huge win.

One progressive, Rep. Mondaire JonesMondaire JonesMcCarthy delays swift passage of spending plan with record-breaking floor speech House Democrats brush off Manchin Buffalo race becomes early test for a divided Democratic Party MORE (D-N.Y.), tweeted late Thursday that he ran for Congress in the first place “because Democrats must fight harder for the things we say we believe in.”

He was, he added, “so proud” that the Progressive Caucus was “doing precisely that.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.