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McConnell Talks About Taking Down Biden’s Agenda—Manchin and the Moderates Are Doing It

·5-min read
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The centrists have betrayed us.

This week, President Joe Biden saw his grand infrastructure bargain lurch closer to political oblivion after Sen. Joe Manchin urged Biden to slam the brakes on the $3.5 trillion party-line portion of the package until 2022.

If that news didn’t cause migraines in the West Wing, Biden also received a kick to the teeth from Arizona Senator and pharmaceutical industry darling Kyrsten Sinema, who told the White House to kick sand on its nearly yearlong effort to lower prescription drug prices. Both Manchin and Sinema’s “centrist” positions represent views well outside the Democratic mainstream—and prove there’s nothing moderate about these radicals.

Biden built his brand as the spokesman for political compromise and big tent consensus, even when walking that path put him at odds with his own party’s resurgent progressives. In practice, that meant avoiding the raw partisanship and legislative power politics that empower Republican majorities and instead moving at the speed of Democrats’ most conservative lawmakers. And while Mitch McConnell talks a lot about strangling the Biden presidency. centrist Democrats are actually doing it.

If Biden Burns AOC on $4 Trillion Deal, He’ll Pay the Price

Manchin’s rightward shift is depressing but unsurprising in a party that has been willing to chase him through multiple public humiliations. Face it, he’s just not into the Democratic agenda. Just two weeks ago, Manchin took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to lobby for trillions of dollars in cuts to Biden’s spending bill. Now Manchin doesn’t want the vote to take place at all. That’s a pretty hot take from a senator who never misses an opportunity to demand Congress “get back to work” for the American people.

Manchin’s slap in the face outraged powerful House progressives who have lent their credibility to passing Biden’s infrastructure deal and other popular measures like prescription drug reform. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez flatly rejected the idea of passing Biden’s bipartisan deal if Democratic leaders bent the knee to what she called a “small, destructive group of members” holding Congress hostage.

AOC isn’t alone. On Tuesday, House Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal let the White House know that Progressive Caucus and its 96 members expected Biden to honor his pledge that the House would vote on both infrastructure bills as a pair.

“Progressives have been clear from the start: Build Back Better and infrastructure go together,” Jayapal tweeted. “Without the Build Back Better plan, millions of people will be left behind as our economy recovers. Oh, and 2 in 3 Americans support it.”

Progressives have reason to feel betrayed. Manchin, Sinema and moderate Democrats in the house have been singularly responsible for Democrats’ failure to deliver on the campaign promises that led to Biden’s historic victory. In fact, Republicans have barely needed to lift a finger as large portions of Biden’s agenda return from Capitol Hill in tatters.

Powerful legislation to protect voting rights and the largely Black and brown communities disproportionately targeted by the GOP’s war on fair elections? Manchin loudly opposed it.

The first minimum wage increase in 12 years? Thumbs-down from Sinema.

Raising the corporate tax rate from an embarrassingly low 21 percent to an equally embarrassingly low 28 percent? Not on Manchin’s watch.

Biden’s vaunted bipartisanship is beginning to fracture, too. On Tuesday, Republicans on the House Problem Solvers Caucus—many of whom previously supported Biden’s infrastructure plan—indicated they couldn’t be counted on to save the bill from Democratic infighting. And there is definitely infighting. Problem Solvers co-chair Rep. Tom Suozzi recently threatened to withhold his support for the $3.5 trillion infrastructure package unless Congress agreed to repeal caps on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction, a blatant handout to ultra-wealthy city-dwellers.

If Biden is finding the fruits of centrism hard to swallow, well, he’s largely responsible for watering that rotten tree. From promising a “return to normalcy” on the campaign trail to wasting crucial months of his presidency in a fruitless yet ongoing effort to cajole Manchin and Sinema on board with the Democratic mainstream, Biden never anticipated that the centrists he held up as an example of Washington at its best were simply playing him. That’s beyond disappointing for Biden, who has carefully cultivated a glowing Beltway media mythology around his purported skills as a Senate dealmaker.

It’s also endangering Biden’s presidency. A Des Moines Register poll released this week found Biden racking up a worrying 62 percent disapproval rating among Iowans. At the same time, a majority of Iowans (and Americans overall) support the spending in Biden’s big infrastructure package—it’s even winning over some Iowa GOP lawmakers! There’s just one problem: Thanks to Manchin and Sinema’s stonewalling, Biden doesn’t actually have an infrastructure package to offer Iowans. That’s a huge missed opportunity for Biden, Democrats, and the American people.

As Matt Lewis wrote for The Daily Beast, Biden has consciously adopted ’60s-era icons like Lyndon Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy as his political models. Setting aside Lewis’ point that Johnson’s presidency struggled mightily, Biden misses the LBJ mark on a more fundamental level—he simply doesn’t have Johnson’s (or Kennedy’s) political courage.

What Manchin and Sinema need now is a good dose of what Johnson’s friends and foes called “the Treatment”—a full-on exercise in pressure politics where the president would unleash the full power of his office to keep wayward Democrats in line for major votes. Biden has made almost no use of the White House’s bully pulpit to enforce that kind of party discipline—and it shows in the mess unfolding on Capitol Hill.

If Biden wants any hope of retaining Congress in 2022 or the White House in 2024, he needs to accept that our critical national moment calls for putting pragmatism above centrist dogma. With centrists actively destroying a Democratic agenda supported by bipartisan majorities of voters, pragmatism isn’t just the most effective way forward for our country. It’s the only path that doesn’t lead to a Republican majority.

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