What progressives get right — and wrong (part 1)

Biden can be very good for progressives — if they'd only let him.


Just weeks after taking office, pundits declared that President Biden might be the next FDR or LBJ — comparisons that were obviously premature.

But they’re looking a little more realistic these days, especially when viewed in today’s political light — whereby one party has effectively rigged our democracy to thwart the will of the majority more often than not.

With serious momentum on two pillars of his Build Back Better agenda — the $1.2 trillion bipartisan “hard” infrastructure plan and the $3.5 trillion Democrat-only “human” infrastructure plan — there’s a real chance Biden could become the kind of seismic Democratic leader who reshapes society akin to what FDR did with the New Deal.

But a whole lot of moving parts need to align almost perfectly for that to happen, although Biden has proven his detractors wrong before.

To do that this time around, he’ll not only have to overcome GOP obstructionism, he’ll also have to woo the opposite end of the political spectrum: his own far-left flank.

If they’re smart, progressives will play ball with Biden and not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.

Above, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), two of the most vocal progressives, discuss climate change during a December 2018 meeting (Photo: By Senate Democrats - 9H1A8450, CC BY 2.0)

The Progressives’ Pleasant Surprise

Biden can be very good for progressives, if they let him (the same can be said of Democratic moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin).

Biden, a creature of the establishment, wasn’t exactly the progressives’ top choice for president. But Democrats learned from their mistakes four years ago when their fractured support of Hillary Clinton helped land Donald Trump in the White House.

Biden pleasantly surprised progressives by making his administration the most diverse in history and by passing the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, which included significant help for poor and working-class Americans.

Most recently, Biden passed a raft of consumer-friendly executive orders that, among other things, aim to lower prescription drug prices, increase scrutiny of big tech and even force airlines to refund fees to passengers if they get bad service.

Meanwhile, Biden’s effort to fix the country’s aging infrastructure enjoys widespread public support and is something both parties have been trying to do for years (or, in Trump’s case, talked about trying to do).

The latest infrastructure framework — developed by a bipartisan group of senators — would invest roughly $1.2 trillion over eight years in traditional infrastructure such as roads, bridges and water systems.

It’s still very much in limbo, but Biden deserves credit for the negotiations, which had been pronounced dead countless times, and for getting Republicans to increase their offer from an initial $189 in new spending to nearly $600 billion in that latest plan (the $1.2 trillion figure includes both new and baseline spending).

But as soon as the tentative bipartisan deal was announced, progressives said they’d never support it until a larger companion bill with their priorities was passed — before Biden and the Democratic leadership could even formulate what that companion bill would look like.

Huge Investment in ‘Human’ Infrastructure

The umbrage was premature. Biden didn’t abandon Democratic priorities like climate change and social safety-net programs like child care. He was always going to shift those to the “human” infrastructure package that would have to pass via reconciliation, the budgetary maneuver that allows Democrats to sidestep a Republican filibuster by passing legislation with a simple majority instead of the usual 60 votes.

The $3.5 trillion budget proposal announced on July 13 does just that, investing heavily in climate change, health care, education and other social programs.

It’s far less than the $6 trillion figure that Sen. Bernie Sanders had floated, but even Sanders (clearly more amenable after playing a key role in Hillary’s defeat) promptly threw his support behind the package, calling it “the most consequential piece of legislation passed since the 1930s.”

Bernie’s support is no guarantee that progressives in the House will follow, but he’s right that the $3.5 trillion proposal has the potential to be transformative for Democrats.

Here’s what it would likely include, according to reporting from The Washington Post, The New York Times and Axios:

— Possibly close to $1 trillion in climate-related legislation, including clean energy tax credits and more funding for electric vehicles.

— An expansion of Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing coverage.

— Reduced prescription costs and expanded subsidies for people to buy health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

— Paid family and medical leave.

— Two years of free community college and universal prekindergarten.

— Extending the expanded child tax credit.

— Financial assistance for elder care, home care and child care.

— Increased funding for housing investments and manufacturing and supply chains.

The blueprint forbids raising taxes on anyone making less than $400,000. Rather, it would be vaguely funded by tax increases on corporations and the wealthy — which wouldn’t be possible in the hard infrastructure package because Republicans would never support such increases.

The bipartisan infrastructure package has its own list of pay-fors and those negotiations appear to be making progress. One snag seems to be giving money to the IRS to beef up tax enforcement, although the IRS provision will likely be shifted to the Democratic social spending package.

High-Wire Act

Biden needs to push that bipartisan infrastructure plan through the Senate (which needs 10 Republicans and all 50 Democrats to pass through the normal legislative process) at the same time that he’s moving forward with his social spending package (which would pass through reconciliation, meaning all 50 Democrats have to be on board).

But the president can’t look like he’s trying to pass both at the same time (even though he is).

That’s because Republicans are angry that Democrats have effectively linked the two packages together — which has caused several of the 11 Senate Republicans who drafted the bipartisan infrastructure proposal to backtrack on their support of the bill.

Even if the bill does make it through the Senate, it faces tough odds in the House, where Nancy Pelosi only has a four-seat margin to work with — and where progressives have drawn a red line that there will be no bipartisan bill until their reconciliation package is passed.

Pelosi could theoretically try to pick off some Republican votes to make up for any Democratic defections, but if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declares his opposition to the infrastructure bill (he hasn’t so far but it would certainly fit his MO), House Republicans won’t vote it.

That brings us back to Biden’s original challenge: He has to keep every Democrat in line to enact his ambitious two-part agenda.

He’s got to convince progressives in the House to back the bipartisan infrastructure framework — while at the same time convincing Democratic moderates to support the party-line social spending package.

(Oh, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that he’s setting up key votes on the bipartisan infrastructure and social spending frameworks this week — even though details of the legislative text haven’t even been ironed out.)

“We’re going to be threading a very small eye of the needle,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D- Md.) told The Wall Street Journal.

It’s more like microscopic.

The question now is whether progressives, usually the loudest of the Democratic factions, will give Biden the benefit of the doubt and not derail the delicate talks with Republicans by airing their grievances in public.

So far, the signs are encouraging. Progressives have refrained from openly criticizing the $3.5 trillion blueprint, saying they need time to examine it, while also insisting that they won’t act like the Freedom Caucus and torpedo legislation just because it’s not perfect.

And that’s the key to a progressive victory: If they want to defeat a Republican Party that’s become synonymous with obstructionism, they’ll have to do the opposite and compromise.

It won’t be easy. For years, progressives have come under fire from moderates for their uncompromising approach, which is threatening to alienate centrist voters.

But these hard-line tactics didn’t come from nowhere. They came from years of frustration with Republicans’ own uncompromising approach. And progressives are right that Republicans’ have been chipping away at the country’s democratic foundation.

The problem is they can’t do much about it.

In part two of this series, I’ll explore how Republicans exploited the levers of government, why Democrats have been powerless to stop it — and why Biden’s legislative agenda is their best hope for countering the slide toward minority rule.