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Democrats can keep stacking up wins by uniting progressives and moderates

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) addresses reporters after a key vote regarding bipartisan infrastructure legislation on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.
Greg Nash

The moderate wing of the Democratic party scored two notable wins over the last few months. Yet, both victories carry the same central challenge for Democrats going forward.

The first win for centrism — and for President Biden’s agenda — came this week, when a rare bipartisan Senate coalition passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill

The plan invests in rebuilding roads and bridges, modernizing public transit, boosting broadband internet, and repairing public water systems, among other long-overdue provisions designed to bring U.S. infrastructure into the 21st century. The plan was overwhelmingly passed in the Senate on a 69-30 vote, which included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)  siding with the majority.

The second notable win was Eric Adams’ victory in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary in June.

Adams — a center-left Democrat who prevailed against staunch progressives like Maya Wiley — has said he will work to reduce crime, attract new investment while sustaining the city’s small businesses, and make the city overall safer, more vibrant, and richer in opportunity. Given the city’s Democratic-lean, Adams is heavily favored to win the November general election. 

Both events are a win for the party’s moderate wing and a step in the right direction for the Democratic party a whole. However, national Democrats and Eric Adams alike face a similar central challenge going forward: engendering unity within their party and establishing consistency in messaging. 

Ultimately, whether or not both can succeed in meeting this challenge will determine whether Democrats can continue to win future elections.

For national Democrats, this challenge will become manifest as the House takes up the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, along with the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion ‘human infrastructure’ proposal. The ‘human infrastructure’ proposal — which would vastly expand the social safety net and fund efforts to curb climate change — was adopted by the Senate last week on a party-line vote without any Republican support.

Now, after the House adopts their own resolution for the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion package, Democrats in both chambers will need to turn the proposal into actual appropriations, setting the stage for a long and contentious battle between moderates and progressives.

Though moderate Senators like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) joined members of his party to advance the resolution, he indicated that he may not support that high level of spending in a final bill, as it “puts at risk our nation’s ability to respond to the unforeseen crises our country could face.”

Moreover, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — along with most of the House’s progressive caucus — has said that the chamber will not advance the bipartisan infrastructure before the passage of the $3.5 trillion package. In response, on Thursday, nine moderate House Democrats threatened to block a vote on the $3.5 trillion budget resolution until the House approves the $1 trillion bipartisan compromise. 

To be sure, Pelosi’s approach could stall the passage of the bipartisan bill for months. This in turn would undercut Biden’s message that both he and his party put progress over politics, and would leave Democrats in a weakened position heading into the 2022 midterms.

According to a recent Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey, 72 percent of voters support the bipartisan agreement, while just 28 percent oppose. Moreover, nearly 7-in-10 voters (68 percent) believe the bipartisan bill should get a simple vote in Congress, while less than one-third (32 percent) believe that the legislation should be tied to the larger $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill.

It is clear that House Democrats must urgently take up and pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Then, Democrats in both chambers will need to compromise and hold their party together — ensuring that moderates and progressives are on board — when the time comes for the final authorization of actual appropriations on the ‘human infrastructure’ package.

In New York, Eric Adams is also faced with the challenge of unifying progressives and moderates in his party behind a common approach to confront the city’s problems.

This means reaching a consensus on how to address the high degree of economic uncertainty, how to handle this new phase of the pandemic as new variants emerge and spread, and how best to reduce the city’s crime rate.

Though Adams won the primary as a centrist, the notable victories of citywide progressives — including Jumaane Williams for public advocate and Brad Lander for comptroller, along with key city council candidates — reveal that Adams is not entering office with a mandate.

Rather, Adams will need to work with progressive lawmakers to come up with a unified approach to address the city’s most pressing problems, as well as a consistent message to communicate to New Yorkers — and to the rest of the country — how a Democratically-led government is successfully revitalizing the city.

It is important to note that New York City is often looked at by the rest of the country as a bellwether of progress. In turn, Adams’ success or lack thereof will carry implications for national Democrats, especially at such a pivotal turning point for New York.

Ultimately, it is clear that both New York City and the United States at large are at a crossroads. And it’s up to the Democrats in charge to show voters why we deserve to be there.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”

Tags Democratic Party Joe Biden Joe Biden Joe Manchin Joe Manchin Legislatures Michael Bloomberg Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi Presidency of Joe Biden

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