Is Joe Biden a Progressive?
They have President Joe Biden by their side. But will their ideological victory be in vain?
At an Oval Office meeting with House Progressives last week, Joe Biden joked about everything that had changed in his long career: “I used to be called moderate,” the president reflected. He was trying, at the time, to mediate a Democratic Party struggle between the left-wing lawmakers sitting in front of him and the moderates he had welcomed a few hours earlier. At the end of the meeting, Biden dismissed Washington State Representative Pramila Jayapal. He leafed through a folder of papers he was holding. Eventually, Biden handed Jayapal a copy of the speech he gave to Congress in April, in which he laid out the economic vision he wanted to adopt – the ambitious agenda to extend the social safety net on which Democrats are currently haggling.
The president’s gesture of support underlined the political reality that drives the tense negotiations on Capitol Hill: in the battle for ideological supremacy within the Democratic Party, the progressives have already won. Biden was indeed a proud moderate during his three and a half decades as a senator, but he bonded firmly with progressives as president. He adopted the agenda championed by his former rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren: fighting climate change; create a new tax credit for child care; expanding the role of government in health care; endorsing universal preschool, free community college, and paid family time off – and made it their own. Moderates in the House and Senate balk at the size and scope of Biden’s plan, and yet the president is siding with the progressives. He used last week’s meetings to reassure lawmakers like Jayapal and put pressure on centrists like West Virginia Senators Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, who opposed the $ 3.5 trillion prize. of the Democrats’ proposal but have not yet made a counter-offer to own them.
The intra-party victory of the progressives may ultimately be in vain. With the slim Democratic majority in Congress, the moderates have the votes to sink everything but the relatively modest infrastructure part of Biden’s platform, which was passed by the Senate in a bipartisan vote last summer. Embittered progressives could then reject the infrastructure bill, leaving the party with a catastrophic whiff before its already strenuous efforts to hold Congress in next year’s midterm elections. “Most people think progressives have been bullied over and over again because they couldn’t or wanted to harness their power,” Jayapal told me.
At a minimum, the moderates are likely to cut the much larger package Democrats must pass without Republicans’ help. But this prospect is not as frightening for progressives as it might have been in recent years. Because of their early success, the Second Bill is so broad that even if the moderates cut its cost in half, Biden could still claim legislative achievements that, on top of the $ 1.9 trillion US bailout passed that day. spring, are more important. than any Democratic president of the past half century. Manchin opposes the breadth of the bill’s climate provisions, and House moderates have blocked a plan to lower the cost of prescription drugs. The Senate parliamentarian rejected a proposal to include a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants. Yet even if these measures are watered down or scrapped, what’s left in the bill would still significantly increase federal support for child care, early childhood education, university and health care.
“Progressives are in charge here,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, the rights group that emerged from Senator Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “Are we going to get everything we want? No, that’s just the reality of politics. But if you look at where we are in the Obama era, it’s transformational.
The dynamic unfolding under Biden is a direct result of the lessons Democrats – both elected leaders and progressive activists – learned from their experiences the last time the party controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. . Democratic majorities in 2009-10 were much larger, but each of the major legislative initiatives of that era started closer to the political center as a compromise to attract Republican votes. Democrats withheld the cost of their initial stimulus package in 2009 and charged it with tax cuts at the expense of greater investment in other areas such as infrastructure. They modeled the Affordable Care Act after a law that Mitt Romney signed as governor of the Massachusetts GOP. The climate bill, which was never passed by the Senate, adopted a market-based cap-and-trade program instead of a simple carbon tax.
On all these proposals, the moderates foiled the progressives without succeeding in convincing the Republicans. Now progressives run the political agenda and have a Democratic president they can claim as an ally. “He was not my candidate for the election,” Jayapal, who backed Sanders in the 2020 primary, said of Biden. “But what he presented in this Build Back Better plan is extremely progressive, and what he has supported throughout our journey is extremely progressive.” Despite everything, Jayapal does not take any risks. As chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, she led the group to adopt a more confrontational posture towards the party leadership. House progressives have threatened to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill approved by the Senate if the broader Democratic bill does not pass first.
The progressives’ biggest move, however, might turn out to be not their tactical positioning now, but their success in gaining and retaining Biden’s support for their agenda. When the president gave Jayapal a copy of his speech last week, he was demonstrating to him that he would fight for their program because he is suspended, that their vision remains his. Jayapal asked him to sign it, and he did. An autographed speech isn’t the presidential signature progressives ultimately want, but for now, it’s the best they can get.