Progressives fear compromise could jeopardize midterm hopes
Progressives are fretting over the pared-back framework of Democrats’ massive social policy and climate bill, warning that it won’t be enough to motivate the party’s liberal base ahead of the 2022 midterms.
Still smarting from seeing the package whittled down from $6 trillion to $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion, liberals say the final result is not enough to push the progressive grassroots to the polls next year after top priorities were left on the cutting room floor.
What’s more, they argue, the omission of provisions such as a national paid family leave program and a proposal to empower the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices from the framework outlined by the White House this week amounts to a slap in the face to the progressive activists and groups who helped President Biden win in 2020.
“It’s promising to see a substantial investment in climate action, but it’s appalling and frankly cruel that drug pricing, paid leave, Medicare expansion on dental and vision, are all cut from the framework, and Biden seems willing to leave a pathway to citizenship for millions up to an unelected parliamentarian,” said Varshini Prakash, the executive director of Sunrise Movement, a progressive group focused on climate issues.
“Progressives are the ones who have fought like hell for Biden’s full agenda, and their votes cannot be taken for granted,” she added.
To be sure, the spending framework suggested by Biden on Thursday would still impose sweeping societal change, and what was left out of the proposal could become priorities for progressives after an ultimate bill is passed.
Many progressives are still lining up behind the framework, in some cases begrudgingly, believing that failing to pass anything at all would be politically self-destructive heading into a midterm election in which both of Democrats’ congressional majorities are on the line.
They see the $1.75 trillion spending framework as an opening gambit that could pave the way for Democrats to extend and expand their priorities later on.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the president of the progressive NextGen America, said that the framework for the pared-down spending bill “represents a breach of democratic trust,” blaming a small group of moderate Democrats for forcing the majority of their party to “renege on essential promises.”
“Young Americans expected the leaders they elected to act and act quickly – on solving the climate crisis, reducing income inequality and building an economy that works for ordinary people,” Tzintzún Ramirez said in a statement on Thursday.
“The Build Back Better Framework announced by the White House today doesn’t go far enough to address the economic and climate crises facing our generation,” she added.
Still, Tzintzún Ramirez said that her group would support the framework for the bill. She urged Democrats to move quickly to pass Biden’s so-called Build Back Better framework as well as a $1 trillion infrastructure package and then “recommit themselves to fulfilling the promises that inspired millions of young people to join our democratic process in 2020.”
For some liberals, however, the compromise on the spending framework underscores a deeper frustration. The spending framework was whittled down after running into stiff opposition from moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), frustrating progressives who see themselves as having earned more influence in Washington.
“The understandable frustration of progressives is that we are anchored down and weighed down by people like Manchin and Sinema,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist and former national surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign. “We want to transform the country, but you can’t do that in this corrupt system.”
“There’s still a fight going on here,” he continued. “We haven’t taken control, and we have to admit it. We haven’t transformed the Democratic Party, and we don’t have the power to do it right now.”
Still, Tasini said that it would be a “huge mistake for progressives to sink” the bill, arguing that Democrats would be wise to quickly approve the social spending and climate change plan before tackling other issues such as allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.
“You have to pass this and fight on,” he said. “It’s about doing right for people. If you do good policy, the politics will follow.”
The concerns about the size and expanse of the framework stem, in part, from Democrats’ belief that they can stave off the kind of midterm thrashing typically dealt to a new president’s party by enacting sweeping, transformational reforms that could prove their ability to govern effectively. Republicans need to flip just five seats in the House and only one in the Senate to reclaim control of Congress.
And to be sure, many Democrats believe that the framework for the social policy and climate bill lives up to goal. Even if it falls short of the $3.5 trillion price tag initially backed by party leaders, $1.75 trillion would still be a historic investment.
Joshua Karp, a Democratic strategist, said most voters aren’t concerned about the exact details of the framework but rather that it takes tangible steps toward fulfilling Democrats’ agenda.
“I do believe that the voters will show up at the ballot box in November of next year because we kept our promises,” Karp said. “Most voters are not following the minutiae of the individual bills here in D.C. The fact that Democrats did not win every priority in this bill is not going to be relevant next year.”
“What’s going to be important is, did we deliver significant progress for American families? And in these bills is a whole lot of progress.”
Tyler Law, a Democratic strategist and former national press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that the fact that the framework was born out of compromise is actually beneficial for the party heading into 2022 because it shows that Democrats are capable of reaching a consensus.
“There’s a benefit in voters seeing that we came to this through compromise,” Law said. “People want compromise. No one has an expectation that they’re going to get every single thing they want, but so long as you’re delivering real results, something they can feel, something that really helps their families, that’s the stuff that makes a difference in the midterms.”
Of course, the fate of the spending proposal — and that of the $1 trillion infrastructure measure — isn’t yet certain. Manchin and Sinema haven’t offered any firm commitments on the framework, and House progressives are refusing to back the infrastructure bill until they see more tangible progress on the larger spending bill.
And if Democrats are able to pass the social policy and climate change bill, whether it serves to mobilize the party’s base in 2022 will largely depend on how successful Democrats are in enacting — and selling — the legislation, said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster.
“It’s hard to see how these projects start to come online in a way that is absolutely noticeable between now and the elections next year,” Amandi said.
“However, if the Democrats and the administration and the government are able to expedite the rollout of these projects so people start seeing and experiencing the impact of what this bill means to their lives and to the life of the country, then I think it could very well serve as a charge for increased Democratic turnout,” Amandi added.