Pragmatic bipartisanship – not hard left intolerance – is Democrats’ surest path back to power

The failed effort by progressives to hold President Biden’s infrastructure bill hostage to the passage of trillions more in social spending turned out to be well, let’s say, not so smart.

To Washington, D.C., insiders, the missteps exposed the progressives as poor negotiators and paper tigers. To average voters, however, it exposed the Democrats as easily intimidated by a hard left that represents maybe 6 percent of the electorate.

Democrats’ off-year shellacking in Virginia and near-loss in New Jersey underscored the error of this strategy. Swing voters responded by abandoning the party in droves. In Virginia, Democrats’ 19-point edge among independents in 2020 flipped to a 9-point deficit in 2021.  

But the party’s left flank doesn’t seem to have learned the obvious political lesson here. And despite failing to seize control of the Biden legislative agenda, progressive activists are still agitating to grab the reins through administrative appointments.

At the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), for example, Biden’s smart selection of Jessica Rosenworcel to be chair has won widespread praise. Rosenworcel is a strong choice with a superb track record on matters such as closing the digital divide. 

But the nomination of Gigi Sohn for the FCC’s third Democratic slot is a different breed. Sohn is career Beltway activist who has built her resume advocating for the most extreme regulatory approaches.

For example, almost everyone agrees that we should adopt open internet regulations to prevent broadband providers from slowing or blocking disfavored content. This even though there has been nary a breach of this principle in the last decade — or in the last five years when no rules were in place. Even broadband providers themselves support adopting those rules today.

But that is not enough for Sohn, who argues that providers need to be further shackled with “Title II utility” regulations, which are widely seen as opening the door for internet price regulations. 

The Washington Post editorial board called the Title II position Sohn advocates “toxic — and outdated,” and leading Obama and Clinton administration telecom experts argue that the prospect of such price regulations could destroy the broadband miracle. 

But this sort of common sense seems to elude Sohn, who responds with empty cliches and sophistries insisting that her type of central planning regulatory approach has voter support, even though you’ll have a hard time finding two voters in the streets who have ever heard of the more extreme Title II approach.   

But most troubling is Sohn’s pattern of illiberal intolerance for voices on the left who dissent from her hard left orthodoxies. Sohn criticizeded civil rights leaders, for instance, for speaking up on telecom issues, arguing that they don’t possess any “core expertise” to weigh in, and threatened to “expose” and “flush” those with heterodox views. She has long been associated with groups that sought local censure of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) for her more centrist, bipartisan approach.  

These are not the markings of a stalwart for liberal democracy, but the expression of an intolerant mindset that’s common on both the political left and right.

Most voters dislike this kind of mindset, especially independents and swing voters, who handed Joe Biden the White House. The siren song of hard left progressivism resonates louder on social media – and in the homogeneous monoculture of coastal political and media elites – than it does with mainstream voters.  

Biden won the 2020 Democratic primaries by remembering that Twitter is not real life. “Middle Class Joe” won as a pragmatic progressive who can work across party lines to deliver results for families in Scranton, Wilmington or Macomb County. The election was a return to normalcy rather than a call to revolution. 

While his falling poll numbers may be attributable in part to inflation, the Afghanistan withdrawal and other issues, some of it is surely due to the ease with which the White House allowed the hard left to call the shots on infrastructure. And appointing ideologues to government agencies is hardly a mid-course correction. 

The White House can right the ship, but only if Biden returns to the moderate “the adults are back in charge” themes he ran on. President Biden needs to govern the way Candidate Biden promised to. Pragmatic bipartisanship – not hard left intolerance and excess – is Democrats’ surest path back.

Lindsay Mark Lewis is the executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute. 

Tags Digital divide Federal Communications Commission Gigi Sohn Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Jessica Rosenworcel Joe Biden Kyrsten Sinema Net neutrality progressives

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