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Of partisan fights and follies, or why Democrats should follow Manchin, not Sanders

Greg Nash

Although the month is more than half over, the looming policy disputes in Washington are sure to make this a September to remember.

The immediate legislative agenda includes passing a continuing resolution to prevent a partial government shutdown; raising the debt ceiling to avoid defaulting on the national debt; passing the Senate-approved $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill through the House; and resolving the myriad sticking points and overall size of the proposed $3.5 trillion reconciliation budget.

For Democrats, this is a prime-time opportunity. While Republicans will certainly look to steal the spotlight by obstructing the process, Democrats will have the chance to demonstrate to the public that their party deserves the majority power it currently wields. They have the chance to show Americans that they know how to do the job they were elected to do: govern responsibly.

Of course, governing responsibly means different things to different people. But a new public opinion poll, conducted by HarrisX on behalf of the Society of Presidential Pollsters and released in partnership with the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, shows an overwhelming majority of the country wants out of the vitriolic partisanship and intense policy brinkmanship that have characterized our national politics for a couple of decades.

Asking registered voters if they agree or disagree with a series of statements, the poll found that 87 percent agreed that “our politics has become too much about fighting and not enough about finding solutions”; 83 percent agreed that “bipartisan compromise is better than single-party control of government”; 81 percent agreed that “bipartisan compromise is better than gridlock”; and 86 percent agreed that “we need a government that draws the best people and ideas from both parties.” Even more incredible, a solid majority (56 percent and 55 percent) said they “strongly agreed” with the first and last statements above (“Our politics has become too much about fighting and not enough about finding solutions” and “We need a government that draws the best people and ideas from both parties”).

These Americans also agreed on the likely causes for why the pitched fighting persists. Seventy-one percent agreed that “our differences have become so deep that we cannot compromise, but must work to defeat those who disagree with us,” and 79 percent agreed that “differences between the two parties have become so great that bipartisanship on big issues is no longer possible.” It is this underlying distrust and cynicism about the other side that turns every slight into viral outrage and sustains the partisan war.

Yet, despite the acknowledged chasms between partisans, a larger majority of registered voters still say they “prefer politicians who compromise and get things done, rather than standing on principle and not acting” to those who say they “prefer politicians who stand on principle over those who compromise, even if it means nothing happens” (79 percent to 59 percent, respectively). Further, when these voters were asked whether they thought that “bipartisan support is critical for major policy changes” or they preferred “a system where one party just enacted its program,” 78 percent chose bipartisanship.

To be clear, more than three-quarters of registered voters want an end to the power-only political arms race. The party that brokers this peace is certain to reap rewards. These voters understand that the constant “death-match” tenor is leading to the mutually assured destruction of not just both parties but our entire democratic system.

The Democrats are currently focused on their getting nearly every progressive policy they have ever wanted strong-armed through the Congress, but they would be wise to recognize they may have a better shot at retaining their majorities by showing the public that they are not abusing their authority, or taking the proverbial mile when the 2020 electorate gave them an inch.

Democrats complain that they should not be the ones to play fair, when the other side plays the game ruthlessly, but they should not be so naïve to believe that this Republican strategy exacts no price. Democrats won 40 House seats in 2018 in what political scientist Gary C. Jacobson called an “extreme referendum” (against then-President Trump).  

Backlash is real. Democrats should not fool themselves into believing that passing a massive $3.5 trillion plan that provides Americans with government benefits from “cradle to grave” will be seen by the public as a good thing. Americans are far more likely to be skeptical of whatever legislation passes via reconciliation precisely because, in this day and age, reconciliation is a partisan process. As the poll numbers show, Americans prefer that major policy changes happen in a bipartisan fashion. This is why House moderates argued with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to “de-link” the Senate infrastructure bill from the reconciliation budget vote.     

But beyond Democratic self-interest lies the moral argument that every parent has said at least once: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” More to the point, when two parties — whether individuals, organizations or countries — are fighting, the onus for ending it is on the one who is stronger and less desperate. Dignity comes from not having to always have the last word.     

President Biden understands this aspect of interpersonal relations and, while Democrats are more vulnerable now to losing the midterms than they were before the summer, they remain in a far stronger position than the Republicans, who are faltering because of their continued fealty to Trump as the party’s leader and kingmaker, despite his losing record. Said another way, if Republicans continue to back Trump-endorsed candidates in GOP primaries and more incumbents like Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) choose not to run because of the “toxic environment” created by Trump, then it seems less likely that Republicans will easily sweep the 2022 midterms. In short, Republicans are providing Democrats an opening to end the war — if Democrats have the courage to seize it.

Seizing this opportunity means passing a smaller reconciliation bill and running for reelection on policies that have either passed or been agreed to: the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan; the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill; a smaller, more digestible $2 trillion reconciliation budget; and the federal coronavirus vaccine mandates, which by next fall will likely have contained the spread of the virus and its more problematic variants.

Isn’t $5 trillion enough to boost the economic and social security of most Americans in the near term? Do you need to go to the mat to get the additional $1.5 trillion, knowing that the breadth of the programs and the size of the spending bill will give Republicans the ammunition they need to affix the “socialist” label firmly on every Democratic candidate’s back?  

Biden, instead of working to persuade Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), to sign onto a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, should be working to persuade the progressives in his party that a “pause” in massive spending is not such a bad idea. Biden should recall his own commentary in Iowa, shortly before the caucuses: “Restoring our soul means creating policies that reflect our shared values.” 

When more than 80 percent of registered voters attest to the virtues of bipartisanship — however difficult it may be to foster and however dispiriting it is in failure — Biden should recognize it as one of our most widely shared values. 

Lara M. Brown is director and professor of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University and the author of “Amateur Hour: Presidential Character and the Question of Leadership.” Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.

Tags Anthony Gonzalez Biden infrastructure bill Democratic Party Donald Trump Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Presidency of Joe Biden Reconciliation trumpism

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