Are progressives pushing the Democrats too far left to win?
The Republican Party has an identity crisis in the era after the presidency of Donald Trump. It gives the Democratic Party the chance to consolidate its power by reaching out to moderate Republicans to achieve legislative compromise. It remains to be seen if Democrats will take this critical time to work with moderate Republicans on a bipartisan agenda, which would create friction with the progressive wing, or if the administration and the leaders in Congress will embrace the unpopular policy ideas from the far left. This could lead to significant losses in the 2022 midterms.
Several stalwart Democrats could face primary challenges, perhaps even Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer from Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Schumer must now balance trying to maintain the control of the upper chamber by not moving too far left, while worrying about his own race for the election. Several other moderate Democrats such as Joe Manchin, Carolyn Maloney, Henry Cuellar, and David Scott are also at risk of primary challenges from progressive candidates. This divisive primary cycle in which progressive candidates prevail, or even come close, could diminish the odds of Democrats retaining control of Congress.
While the administration has made its own leftward shift, there are areas where there are fissures between Joe Biden and the left wing. One such issue is student loan debt as progressive lawmakers have intensified the pressure to cancel such debt, even after Biden said he was not ready to write off as much as $50,000 for each individual. Yet he has done work with progressive lawmakers, and a few of their priorities are reflected in his early actions. Biden delivered them wins on the climate and has also dealt blows to the traditional energy industry by revoking the permit for the Keystone Pipeline and by halting drilling on federal lands.
Biden has also unveiled a $2 trillion environmental proposal. The initiative has drawn criticism from Republicans as well as the moderate Democrats for its high costs and potential for job losses. The progressive efforts for a Green New Deal have intensified recently, and it is evident the left wing is uninterested in finding a middle ground with the issue. Amid devastating power outages in Texas that have left millions of residents with blackouts, Ocasio Cortez wrote that such energy infrastructure failures are “literally what happens” when leaders do not enact a Green New Deal.
This conflict about the climate issue will drive a wedge not only between Democrats and Republicans, but also between moderate Democrats and progressive Democrats. Moderate Democrats from fossil fuel states may oppose broad energy policy, or any policy which resembles a Green New Deal, citing job losses at home. Manchin, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, has often broken with Democrats to defend coal and would likely block the $2 trillion climate plan and similar legislation.
In addition to taking progressive stances on the climate, Biden and some Democrats seek to increase the minimum wage to $15 using the stimulus bill. This has been met with predictable resistance from Republicans and some moderate Democrats. The data on such a minimum wage increase has been mixed. Government analysts found the federal minimum wage raise to $15 would put more than one million Americans out of work but would lift millions of Americans out of poverty over five years. But those job losses would also hurt younger lower income Americans.
If the minimum wage hike is included in the stimulus bill, the measure will most likely fail in the Senate since almost all Republicans and a number of moderate Democrats oppose it. Democrats also have talked about passing federal relief with a minimum wage hike through the budget reconciliation process. This would be a blow to bipartisan action and would indicate the limits of how much Biden is willing to work with Republicans.
On foreign policy, the administration has made a notable leftward shift by signaling that it could engage Iran in another nuclear deal. I was critical of the original nuclear deal and I believe that another one will embolden Iran and hurt Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East. In the end, the power of the left wing is undeniable. Yet if the administration continues to appease progressive lawmakers, which is not only bad policy but also bad politics, this could lead to losses for Democrats in the 2022 midterms.
Douglas Schoen is a political consultant who has served as adviser to Bill Clinton and to the campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”
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