What progressives get right — and wrong (part 2)

Republicans stacked the deck against Democrats, but you play the hand you're dealt — and you don't overplay it.

This is part two of a three-part series. Originally it was meant to be a two-part series, but – surprise, surprise – it turned out longer than I thought. This part talks about what progressives get right (Republican obstructionism) and the final part will talk about what they get wrong (defunding police). To read part one on the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending package, click here. And thanks for reading!

Murphy’s Law: You write a column expressing optimism that a bill will get through Congress one day, so naturally it falls apart the next day.

But because this is Washington, the column will probably be relevant again next week when the bill is resurrected. And indeed, the bipartisan infrastructure proposal (now oddly known as BIF, which conjures memories of the bad guy in “Back to the Future”) seems to have many lives.

On Wednesday, Republicans blocked a procedural vote that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set up to speed up the negotiations over BIF. But (and there’s always a but on Capitol Hill), odds look good that the bipartisan Senate group will have a deal to present to Schumer on Monday for another vote.

While there are still issues to resolve like the pay-fors, these senators have been working in good faith on BIF for months — and aren’t likely to let their efforts to go to waste.

But even if BIF passes the procedural hurdle on Monday, that’s just the start of a long process as senators hammer out the legislation’s text, and as we’ve seen before, big bills can quickly fall apart over small disagreements.

If this happens to BIF, it would mark one of the biggest lost opportunities for bipartisanship since comprehensive immigration reform was narrowly defeated in 2007 — an opportunity that is unlikely to come up again given how dysfunctional our democracy has become (more on that later).

If BIF implodes, the $1.2 trillion in “hard” infrastructure investments it contains for roads, bridges and waterways would be shifted to the $3.5 trillion “human” infrastructure package that Democrats are preparing to pass along party lines via reconciliation.

But it’s not going to be that simple to just fold one expensive, massively complex package into another even more expensive, more complex package that needs every single Democrat in the Senate (and practically all in the House) to succeed.

Passing the $1.2 trillion bipartisan deal on its own would theoretically simplify things because Democrats could then focus exclusively on their own $3.5 trillion budget blueprint.

So, where do progressives fit into all this?

They’d need to let Biden move both pieces of legislation in tandem and not derail BIF just because their social spending package hasn’t passed yet.

But that’s a tall order because they want a guarantee that Democratic moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin would support their social spending bill before they commit to the moderates’ infrastructure bill.

While progressives have nothing to do with BIF’s current state of flux in the Senate, they’ve been waiting in the wings for it to fail — because they don’t trust Republicans (specifically Mitch McConnell) to negotiate in good faith and not torpedo the whole effort just to deny the president a victory (the scars of Obamacare run deep).

As for the $3.5 trillion budget proposal that contains the social elements of Biden’s agenda — climate change, Medicare expansion, child care, community college etc. — progressives have offered tepid support for it.

“There isn’t a big area of our priorities that was left out,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters shortly after the proposal was announced.

But she added: “You can be assured, we are pushing for as much as we can possibly get.”

And that right there is the key. Pushing for your priorities is politics 101. Pushing too far and getting nothing is stupidity 101.

As progressives have gained in strength over the years, some Democrats see them as fighters and applaud their bold, uncompromising embrace of long-sought liberal policies like paid paternity leave (popular among many Americans) that have shifted the entire party to the left.

Others, though, see them as spoilers whose zero-sum approach has blocked sound Democratic proposals and alienated centrist voters.

Both arguments have merit, but it’s important to remember that progressives’ stance on issues such as getting rid of the filibuster was born of frustration over the Republicans’ abuse of the filibuster — and the GOP’s larger efforts to exploit holes in our democratic construct.

Undemocratic Advantage

Progressives (and Democrats as a whole) are right that Republicans have systematically come to dominate all three branches of government even when they don’t represent the majority of the country, oftentimes leading to minority rule that has prevented popular laws from being enacted.

Under McConnell, Republicans have institutionalized the filibuster in the Senate, where the balance of power was already artificially tilted to favor the GOP because seats are appropriated by state and not by population.

That’s why California has the same number of seats as Wyoming, even though it has nearly 70 times more people.

That’s also why it’s misleading to describe the Democrats’ lead in the Senate as “narrow.” Technically that’s true — they have 51 votes if you count the vice president — but they represent over 41 million more Americans than Republican senators do (not exactly narrow).

And even though Republicans don’t control the Senate, their veto power thanks to the filibuster means they can effectively kill any legislation they oppose unless Democrats come up with 60-vote supermajority (a near impossibility given Republicans’ refusal to break ranks with McConnell).

The Senate’s unequal representation has a toxic trickle-down effect because the chamber approves federal judges (who serve for life) and nominees for the Supreme Court.

That’s partly why the Supreme Court today, with its 6-3 conservative majority, has become so ideologically lopsided compared to the rest of the country.

The court’s conservative makeup also creates a vicious cycle, as seen in its recent decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, clearing the way for Republicans to continue to pass voting restrictions that critics say disproportionately hurt Democratic constituencies such as voters of color.

And in one of the most Machiavellian power grabs in modern times, McConnell refused to hold a hearing on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, ostensibly because the 2016 election was nine months away. Then he helped confirm Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, days before the 2020 election — setting a dangerous precedent that whoever controls the Senate can use McConnell’s tortured logic to decide whether a Supreme Court nominee even gets a hearing.

As for the House, Republicans began a shrewd campaign decades ago of winning state legislatures and gerrymandering districts in their favor — another vicious cycle that enhanced their power. (Democrats caught on to the game too late and even now are hesitant to play it.)

As a result of GOP gerrymandering, Democratic candidates in 2020 defeated their Republican opponents by 3.1 percentage points nationally yet lost a dozen seats in the House.

And if it weren’t for the Electoral College, Republicans would struggle to win a presidential election. It’s why they’ll never agree to abolish the antiquated system, no matter how much it defies what the majority of Americans want, because they’d be hard-pressed to get enough popular votes to capture the White House outright, especially if they keep putting up polarizing candidates like Donald Trump.

“Today, the antidemocratic force of the Electoral College is the dominant feature of American politics,” wrote Adam Jentleson in a must-read April 12 article for The Atlantic. “Since 2000, both Republican presidents who won the White House came to power without winning the popular vote. The consequences of these presidencies for America and the world are hard to overstate.”

Jentleson, a former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Harry Reid, describes how a “minority-rule doom loop” has disfigured American democracy:

The doom loop consists of four interlocking components. Candidates who represent white conservatives — Republicans, in our ideologically sorted era — begin every election cycle buoyed by a sluice of voter suppression and gerrymandering (what I call electoral welfare), which makes it easier for them to win. Then antidemocratic features of the American system that have always existed but never benefited one party over the other in any systematic way help those same candidates take control of institutions such as the White House and the Senate, despite winning fewer votes and representing fewer people than their opponents. Once in control of these institutions, these newly elected officials use them to entrench their power beyond the reach of voters. If they are eventually voted out of power, they retain a veto over the agenda of the majority, which they use to block change and feed the conservative case that the government is “broken.” This hastens their return to power — along the very path they greased with voter suppression.

And in the wake of Biden’s victory in the 2020 election — propelled in part by minority voters — we’re seeing a surge in voter suppression as dozens of GOP-controlled state legislatures rush to pass hundreds of restrictive new voter laws.

An important caveat here: Some of the Democratic criticism of these laws is overblown. It remains to be seen, for example, if placing certain limits on early and absentee voting will actually suppress turnout (there’s evidence it may not).

But much of the outrage is justified. One of the proposals would punish poll workers with fines or even criminal charges for minor unintentional mistakes. Others would allow GOP-controlled legislatures to appoint partisan officials who could override state election boards.

Remember, it was these boards that resisted intense pressure from Trump to overturn the election. If Republicans had had their “officials” in place in 2020, it’s not far-fetched to imagine votes being thrown out to illegally keep Trump in power.

Separately, some GOP-controlled legislatures have even gone so far as to target voter ballot initiatives to prevent progressive policies such as legalizing marijuana and raising the minimum wage from becoming law.

After voters in Idaho rebelled against GOP efforts to limit Medicaid, for instance, they organized a ballot initiative in 2018 to expand Medicaid that won resounding support. In response, Republicans in the state are now making it harder than ever for voters to organize future ballot initiatives.

So yes, progressives are right to rail against increasingly brazen Republican efforts to thwart the will of voters.

The problem is, there’s not much they can do about it.

Democrats’ Hands Are Tied

The Senate’s imbalance is baked into the Constitution. The upper chamber was designed to protect the rights of sparsely populated states (regardless that the Founders never envisioned just how extreme the population divides would become).

Meanwhile, the Democrats’ main weapon against restrictive GOP voting laws, the For the People Act, isn’t going anywhere in the Senate because it doesn’t have close to the 60-vote supermajority it would need to overcome a GOP filibuster.

And moderate Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have made it abundantly clear that they’re not going to blow up the filibuster to pass For the People (or any other legislation).

This, of course, has drawn the ire of progressives, who frequently bash Manchin.

However, alienating a senator who supports your party even though he essentially represents Trump country is not exactly a wise legislative strategy. Nor is blowing up the filibuster because while Republicans have used it to grind politics to a halt, getting rid of it would leave Democrats powerless whenever Republicans retake control of the Senate (an inevitability).

Likewise, there’s not a lot of hope on the presidential front because abolishing the Electoral College would require the agreement of two-thirds of the House and Senate, plus three-fourths of states — and good luck getting red states to agree to give up their advantage in winning the White House.

There is the chance that if Republicans continue to win the presidency without winning the popular vote that eventually, just maybe, there will be some kind of revolt and the Electoral College will have to go. But for now, major electoral reforms are just not in the cards.

This gets to a lesson Biden learned over his 36 years in the Senate: You play the hand you’re given — and progressives have been given a great hand by the president.

If both the bipartisan infrastructure plan and the Democratic social spending plan become law (on top of the already-passed $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan), Democrats will have made history by instituting a slew of progressive policies, from health care and education to climate change and child care.

Republicans are sure to take credit for the popular initiatives that they tried to kill, and Democrats have no hope of winning over Trump die-hards even if their plans directly help them. But the hope is that by ushering in such profound changes that benefit everyday Americans, those Americans will reward you at the ballot box — and, by extension, Democrats can begin to chip away at the structural advantages that Republicans have built.

Democrats will be aided by the country’s changing demographics as the share of non-White voters continues to grow.

But there are some important caveats to the so-called “demographics as destiny” narrative on which many Democrats have pinned their hopes:

One: Whites are still more reliable voters than Black and Brown voters — a problem the Democratic Party isn’t keen to acknowledge.

Two: The electorate may be more diverse, but it’s not monolithic, as seen in Trump’s strong performance among Latino voters.

Three: Even though the country leans Democratic (about 53% versus 47% in the last election), it’s still pretty evenly split between the parties (unlike during FDR’s time, when he enjoyed a commanding Democratic majority).

Moreover, while the country tends to lean more to the left than to the right, it doesn’t necessarily lean to the far-left — and this is where we’re seeing progressives overplay their hand.

Tomorrow, I examine the backlash to progressive calls to defund the police and why supporting Biden’s economic agenda is key to fighting the nation’s soaring homicide rate.