Given this picture of the ideological divide within parties, a casual observer might assume that, in the struggle to move President Biden’s agenda through Congress, the chief obstacle (beyond Republican opposition) is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and its demands for bigger, more ambitious programs. Biden was, after all, not their first choice for president. Or their second. He won the Democratic presidential nomination over progressive opposition, and there was a sense on the left, throughout the campaign, that Biden was not (and would not be) ready to deal with the scale of challenges ahead of him or the country.
But that casual observer would be wrong. Progressives have been critical of Biden, especially on immigration and foreign affairs. On domestic policy, however, they’ve been strong team players; partners in pushing the president’s priorities through Congress. The reconciliation bill, for instance, is as much the work of Bernie Sanders as it was of the White House. As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders guided the initial budget resolution through the chamber, compromising on his priorities in order to build consensus with other Democrats in the Senate.
Progressive Democrats want the bill to pass, even if it isn’t as large as they would like. They believe, correctly, that a win for Biden is a win for them. Moderate Democrats, however, seem to think that their success depends on their distance from the president and his progressive allies. Their obstruction might hurt Biden, but, they seem to believe, it won’t hurt them.
This is nonsense. Democrats will either rise together in next year’s elections or they’ll fall together. The best approach, given the strong relationship between presidential popularity and a party’s midterm performance, is to put as much of Biden’s agenda into law as possible by whatever means possible.
But this would demand a more unapologetically partisan approach, and that is where the real divide between moderates and progressives emerges. Moderate and centrist Democrats seem to value a bipartisan process more than they do any particular policy outcome or ideological goal.
The most charitable explanation is that they believe that their constituents value displays of bipartisanship more than any new law or benefit. A less charitable explanation is that they see bipartisanship as a way to clip the wings of Democratic Party ambition and save themselves from taking votes that might put them in conflict with either voters or donors.
What is true of both explanations is that they show the extent to which moderate Democrats have made a fetish of bipartisan displays and anti-partisan feeling. And in doing so, they reveal that they are most assuredly not the adults in the room of American politics.