AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
Any ordinary American tuning in to coverage of American politics to learn what the Biden White House or the Pelosi/Schumer Congress plans to do about the multitude of problems facing the country – from the border to China’s aggression, to even whether their dollar savings will be worth anything in a few months – would have found themselves out of luck over the last few weeks. The narrative of American governance has become all about Democratic politicians fighting and negotiating with each other, with farcical scenes such as a Democratic senator from Arizona refusing to return phone calls from the President of the United States –a member of her own party.
While the media has been happy to follow Democrats down this rabbit hole of factions, personal rivalries, and technical disputes, the big picture has been lost. The Democratic Party’s current infighting is not that of a victorious and all-powerful party struggling to decide what to do with its victory. Instead, it is the panicked reaction of a party that understands it was largely defeated in November 2020 and is struggling to find a path forward in the aftermath.
By “defeated” in 2020, we must be very clear what we mean: while Joe Biden is President, and Democrats nominally control the Senate 51-50 with the vote of Vice President Harris, that is not where, for the better part of four years prior to November 2020, the polls or most Democrats believed they would be following last year’s election.
The results in 2020 came as a shock to Democrats for several reasons. First, Joe Biden’s official margin of victory, while slightly larger than Obama’s in 2012 at 51.26% to 46.8%, was half the size that polls, such as Nate Silver’s 538, had showed, at 51.8% to 43.4%. But even more concerning for Democrats, the locations of the polling error tended to be not in places where Democrats were strong, but rather either in swing areas where they hoped for gains, or areas where Obama had done well in 2008 and 2012, but Trump had won in 2016. In effect, Democrats won areas they felt were moving in their direction such as Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Wisconsin by far less than they expected, and lost states they thought were close such as Iowa, Ohio, and Florida by much larger margins.
The implications of this in the Presidential race were obscured by the fact that the numbers showed Biden won. But they were keenly felt in the Senate races, where Democrats lost races in Iowa and North Carolina where they believed they were favored, and their candidates did worse than Biden even where he won, such as in Michigan and Maine. The result at the time was to leave the Senate at 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats, a situation transformed by the victory of Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock against a dysfunctional Georgia GOP in January 2021. Nonetheless, it was ominous and it set the tone for Democratic behavior in 2021.
In light of these results, we can understand that the reason Democrats are now obsessing the filibuster is not because they have a mere 50 seats in the Senate. When Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut calls out Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema for blocking legislation that 48 Democrats support, he is doing so not because he believes they are likely to be 50 or 52 Senators for it in the future but because he is pretty sure 50 is as good as it is going to get. In 2008, Democrats won 60 Senate seats, and while with hindsight we can see this was a high-water mark, at the time Democrats dreamed bigger. After all, Mitch McConnell had only won 53%-47% in 2008. There were also open seats in states Obama had won in 2008 such as New Hampshire, North Carolina and Florida coming up in 2010, and there was a path to a Democratic supermajority.
That is not the case after 2020. In 2020, only Susan Collins won reelection in a state won by the Presidential candidate of the opposing party. Democratic challengers, including strong ones such as Montana’s two-term governor, Steve Bullock lost, and lost badly (by 10% in Bullock’s case). This was also not just a 2020 phenomenon. Despite a good year for Democrats overall in 2018, Democratic incumbent Senators lost in Florida, Indiana, and Missouri that year.
Biden’s underperformance scared Democrats because it indicated a ceiling, rather than a floor for their strength.
In 2022, Democrats will be defending Senate seats in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and New Hampshire, all states that went to Biden, but within margins whereby strong GOP challengers, which exist in all those states, could win. More problematically, the list of Democratic targets includes only Pennsylvania and Wisconsin among states Biden won, and North Carolina and Florida among states Trump won by less than landslide margins. Matching Biden exactly would get the Democrats a gain of two seats; but even in 2020 most Democratic candidates ran behind Biden, and Biden is himself deeply unpopular today.
The situation in the House is, if anything, worse for the Democrats. Democrats lost 12 House seats in 2020. The impact of redistricting is overblown – Republicans will gain a marginal advantage from the lines, but census results show the areas growing most quickly lean Democrat – yet nonetheless, the Democrat position is so weak that any deterioration in Biden’s position will be fatal to their 2022 hopes.
In effect, the 2021 Democratic majorities are on a “death watch,” and Democrats’ confused attempts to deal with that realization is determining their current erratic behavior.
The split in the party is not so much between the moderates and the progressives. It is between progressives and moderates who desire political futures and those who know they have none. Pelosi is able to generally pass left-wing legislation in the House despite her narrow majority because many of her moderates know they are doomed no matter what, and are willing to cast their votes for the progressive agenda. In turn, AOC and the Squad feel free to sabotage any compromises because their own seats are safe and they believe they have time to fight another day, even if it is ten years from now. By contrast, both Sinema and Manchin seem to resent the efforts of other Democrat officials to pressure them to commit political suicide or behave as if they personally are doomed, just because it is true of some of their colleagues. In particular, rhetoric out of the Democrat caucus that Manchin is “probably in his last term anyway” or that Sinema “won’t win reelection” seems predicated on the idea that both should act as if they are finished and behave accordingly.
That appears to be the idea behind the left-wing belief that physically threatening Sinema, stalking her into restrooms, and following Manchin on vacation, will somehow make them give up and realize they need to act as if they are as doomed, as does the rest of the caucus, and get what progressives want passed now.
Part of the reason this is unlikely to be effective is that Sinema and Manchin, if convinced that they truly have no future in the Democrat Party, may not behave in the way left-wing activists wish. Those activists may be able to ensure Sinema and Manchin have no future in primaries, but their sway in general elections only matters if the two Senators face Republicans. It may well be that one or both may see a party switch or an independent run as a way to preserve their positions and even hit back.
This might be evident to those activists pressing Manchin and Sinema if they were not almost schizophrenically convinced, they represent majority sentiment at the same time they are worried Democrats are doomed in 2022. David Shor, who at 20 ran Obama’s data team in 2012, has been outspoken over the last several weeks regarding the dominance of young, college-educated, party workers and activists on the Democratic side who are disconnected from most Americans on the issues, but especially disconnected from the more moderate, non-white voters Democrats need. While Shor is pessimistic as well, his reason for pessimism — that demographics did not deliver for Democrats because Democrats alienated the voters they were counting on –would require those activists to admit fault. Instead, they prefer to blame their failures on a lack of “mobilization”, in other words, that they did not go left enough.
Hence, in the minds of these left-wing activists, if Democrats are doomed, it is because of the refusal of Sinema and Manchin, two of the most successful Democratic politicians, to end their political careers, rather than because the rest of the party refuses to listen to two of their members who have been most successful at winning over voters who might normally be expected to back Republicans.
Grasping these seemingly paradoxical convictions that prevail among the Democratic elite– that on the one hand, Democrats are facing mass voter defections, and that on the other hand moderates like Manchin and Sinema are to blame for their political misfortunes–is the key to understanding the weird intellectual death spiral the left of the Democratic party has fallen into.
Shor argues that the real problem with this progressive clique of largely white, privileged, young college grads is not their views on specific policies, but their inability to listen or interact with anyone who is not part of their ideological in-group. That is on full display with the disputes that are currently tearing the Democratic Party apart, the left’s treatment of Sinema and Manchin, and the likely failure of Biden’s domestic agenda.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.