Progressives’ majority delusions politically costly

It’s been 20 years since the vice president turned a 50-50 partisan deadlock into a majority — and that condition didn’t last long. Within five months, Republican Jim Jeffords, deciding that the GOP was out of step with him ideologically, defected to the Democrats. If the Democrats aren’t careful, West Virginia’s moderate Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin could easily pull a “Jeffords,” leaving progressives in a spluttering rage — an impotent, spluttering rage, that is.

Ever since their narrow, Trump-assisted double win in the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, national Democrats — and progressives in particular — have been drunk on power they don’t have.

Rather than taking a sober, realistic view, the progressive left has swooned over reports of their “total control” in Washington.

Unfortunately, wishful thinking and bravado come to grief when faced with the uncompromising math that conclusively shows the Democrats with an extraordinarily tenuous partisan majority and certainly no ideological mandate.

Current Democratic majorities are remarkably similar to the Republican advantage after the 2000 election. Then the Senate was also knotted at 50-50. The GOP House advantage hovered around 10-12 seats, depending on the number of vacancies. The 2020 Democratic advantage is 221-211 with three vacancies (two GOP seats and one Democratic seat). All in all, remarkably similar.

But that only tells part of the story. The Democratic advantage in 2020 is much weaker. For one thing, the victories in Georgia were built on Trump’s petulance and self-indulgence far more than anything the Democrats did. Georgia voters hardly endorsed the progressive agenda. It’s also worth noting that Senate Democrats only have 48 seats — Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King caucus with the Democrats but are unwilling to drop their independent status.

This limited, at best, support for progressive policies should not be a shock. After all, the Democratic electorate decisively rejected progressivism in the 2020 presidential primaries. Joe Biden, the moderate choice, clearly thumped the progressive hero, Sanders, who only managed to gain a majority of primary votes in two states — his home state (with an anemic 50.6 percent) and with the microscopic cadre of Great Plains liberals in North Dakota. When the primary field narrowed to a one-on-one race between Biden and Sanders, Sanders lost every contest.

What holds together Democratic voters is not progressive ideology; it’s hatred for Trump. According to the Republican-oriented polling firm Echelon Insights, Democratic voters rate danger from “Trump supporters” as a concern (82 percent) second only to the coronavirus (87 percent).

Yet, progressives like Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) bluster about like the aftermath of the defeat of Alf Landon by Franklin Roosevelt. With every demand and threat against insufficiently “woke” Democratic office holders, the progressives increase the chances Biden will push too far to the left or that Manchin (or other Democrats) will either switch parties or go independent.

West Virginia troubles

If Manchin were to switch parties, like Jeffords did in 2001, there is nothing the jilted former majority could do about it — just like in 2001. When it comes to electing a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, in West Virginia there’s Manchin and nobody else. West Virginia is now a decisively Republican state, having elected Sen. Shelley Capito Moore by a large majority and plumping for Trump by nearly 40 points.

Any Democratic challenge to Manchin is pure delusion and he knows it. Manchin has faced primary opposition in every statewide race and has never won by less than 25 points. He has rebuffed progressive demands and will unquestionably block any attempt at eliminating the filibuster (rendering his vote far less powerful), not to mention other pipe dreams like statehood for Puerto Rico or D.C. — which would dilute the political power of West Virginia and other small states.

A lifelong Democrat, Manchin would likely find it difficult to switch parties. But political power is about survival, and Manchin has to know life as a Republican would make things much easier for him in West Virginia. He barely squeaked by in 2018, with less than 50 percent of the vote. As a Republican he would likely win by the wide margins that Gov. Jim Justice and colleague Capito Moore enjoy.

And Manchin is not the only problem for progressive Democrats.

Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has struck a more moderate path which makes sense in Arizona — a state whose move toward the Democratic Party is not necessarily permanent and may well be driven as much by the antics of a dysfunctional state GOP as by Democratic policy.

Montana and its Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is another problem spot for progressives. Tester only just edged out underfunded Republican Matt Rosendale in 2018. And the Treasure State has turned more difficult for Democrats. Trump won in 2016 and in 2020. The GOP gained a clean sweep of statewide offices in 2020, including the re-election of Sen. Steve Daines over popular Gov. Steve Bullock. National Democrats thought they had a winner and outspent Republicans by $19 million. Nevertheless, Daines won easily.

Just like the most fervent activists on the Right, the Progressive Left keeps forgetting they have to actually win races in order to get their platform passed. But then again, their agenda cannot win, so perhaps bluster and threats are the only strategy available. Too bad it’s a one-way ticket into the minority.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D. is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Dr. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Angus King Bernie Sanders Democratic majority Democratic Party Factions in the Democratic Party Jim Jeffords Joe Biden Joe Manchin Jon Tester moderate Democrats Politics of the United States Presidency of Joe Biden progressive agenda Progressive wing Steve Bullock Steve Daines woke politics

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