A decade ago, when a wave of tea party Republicans came to Congress, many Americans were worried about our government. Determined to dictate terms to the rest of America despite drawing only a minority of support, the tea party’s leaders over-promised and under-delivered. They almost pushed America into default when they threatened to refuse to raise the debt ceiling. Now, the same tactics are taking control of the left of the Democratic Party.
Just as tea party pugilists upended John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News Trump's attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid MORE (R-Ariz.) and Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerProgressive groups urge Schumer to prevent further cuts to T plan Collins says she supports legislation putting Roe v. Wade protections into law Biden should seek some ideological diversity MORE’s (D-N.Y.) “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill in the House after it passed the Senate with 68 votes in 2013, the new “tea party of the left” has undermined the bipartisan infrastructure reform bill that passed the Senate with 69 votes in August. In both cases, the broad majority of the country was held hostage by an activist fringe. Both cases represent crucial missed opportunities to get Washington working again.
Today, as before, those leading a movement that speaks for just a portion of the electorate believe they have a mandate to force their beliefs and their agenda on all Americans. Anyone who has the temerity to question their tactics is attacked or threatened. This should be a moment of bipartisan renaissance. Joe Biden won the presidency in part as a result of his appeal to moderates and for his long-standing record of work across the aisle.
The margin of his victory was clear, but not large enough to justify the embrace of an expansive agenda of the kind once pushed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he had a 194-seat House majority in 1933, or Lyndon Baines Johnson when he had a 155-seat majority. While FDR’s coattails gave him the leverage and arguably the mandate to impose reforms almost at will, Biden today has the narrowest House majority since World War I and controls a 50-50 Senate only by virtue of a tie-breaking vote from the vice president. And yet somehow the new tea party of the left has concluded this constitutes permission from the public to push the biggest expansion of government in 60 years with almost no debate or public discussion of what they are proposing and no questions about whether our country can afford these new programs.
When Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE (D-W.Va.) made the sensible suggestion to put a “strategic pause” on the reconciliation debate to give Congress the proper time to review and discuss these proposals that touch almost every facet of American life — from child care and education to health care and energy and climate change — he was unfairly shouted down as a traitor to the Democratic party.
Rather than accepting the limits of their political power, the tea party of the left is working to leverage it into more than it really is. Rather than seeking common ground with more moderate Democrats and Republicans, they use over-the-top rhetoric to demonize them, and presume that any difference of opinion is born of corruption or greed.
Much like the earlier tea party, they seem to take pleasure in a kind of irresponsible political brinkmanship, as happened with government shutdowns in years past, and with the failure of the infrastructure bill last month. Both the tea party of the right and the left want everything they want, and they want it now. That is not the way Washington works when it works.
When I look back at my service in the Senate, the accomplishments I am most proud of were all the result of bipartisan negotiation and compromise, including the Clean Air Act amendments of the 1990s, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, the post-9/11 reform in homeland security and intelligence, and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
I understand and applaud the many Americans who have protested and demanded something better from Washington. That’s what our democracy is all about. But to reform Washington, our leaders will need to embrace solutions from the middle out together. Far from solving our problems, angry rhetoric, nasty threats, and endless brinkmanship are sure to worsen our governmental crisis.
In the end, the original tea party was never able to achieve anything much legislatively, but they did bring about the defeat of many Republican candidates for Congress and national office. The tea party of the left is forcing President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE, the Democratic Party, and America down a similar path.
Joseph I. Lieberman was a senator from Connecticut and is the founding chairman of No Labels, a national movement of Democrats, Republicans and Independents working to bring our leaders together to solve America’s toughest problems.
Editor's note: This piece was updated at 10:13 am.