The Corner

Politics & Policy

Can Either Party Set Priorities?

President Joe Biden meets virtually with governors, mayors, and other state and local elected officials, in the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, D.C., August 11, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Both the process and the substance of the legislative effort the Democrats are now pursuing suggest they have lost the capacity to rank their aims and set priorities. What particular goal could be attributed to the Build Back Better framework they are advancing? If they were to describe what it offers the American public, where would they start? If to govern is to choose, they are failing to govern.

But that failure doesn’t mean their legislative efforts won’t bear fruit. I actually think that last week’s embarrassing fiasco brought the Democrats significantly closer to passing their reconciliation bill, even if their inability to prioritize will mean that bill won’t amount to much.

It was still an embarrassing fiasco: Speaker Pelosi’s failed attempt to manufacture urgency left her looking weak. President Biden’s insistence that his presidency was on the line, only to have senators Manchin and Sinema decline to endorse his reconciliation framework and House progressives decline to vote for the infrastructure bill left him looking foolish. The whole exercise left everybody frustrated.

So why do I think it brought the Democrats closer to enacting their agenda? Because the response of House progressives to the dramatically pared down reconciliation framework that the White House proposed suggests they now have no particular policy objectives, but only procedural objectives. The bill would spend about half of what they have insisted they want, removes (on the basis of guesses about what two senators want) many of the policies progressives had championed, and amounts to a patchwork of mostly temporary, strikingly under-developed, and largely unworkable schemes. It’s full of the sort of stuff that the writers of The West Wing always tried to end sentences with, but devoid of the sort of stuff that the writers of legislation normally try to do. It spends enough to let Republicans attack it next year without yielding enough concrete benefits that voters might appreciate, and it wouldn’t be easy to say what question it’s trying to answer.

But House progressives generally took this framework as a win. There was some carping about the absence of ambitious immigration provisions, which were never a realistic possibility in the Senate. But otherwise their main complaint was that it wasn’t clear if senators Sinema and Manchin supported this new framework.

That suggests that what House progressives now want is the same as what senators Sinema and Manchin want: namely, a version of the Build Back Better bill that senators Sinema and Manchin can support, almost regardless of what it contains. The progressives have declared their willingness to surrender, and are now devoting their energies to getting Sinema and Manchin to define the terms of that surrender. That seems like an achievable project even for the narrowest congressional majority in American history. It could still fail. But passage of something they can call Build Back Better, alongside the infrastructure bill that already got through the Senate, seems more likely, not less, in the wake of what last week revealed.

The trouble for Democrats, though, is that the failure to prioritize substantive policy ambitions has characterized not only the process but also the substance of putting the reconciliation bill together. The more ambitious, more progressive earlier versions of Build Back Better were always a case study in indecision. Rather than outline one or two serious national problems that they proposed to take on, the Democrats projected an amount of money to spend, and then stuffed everything that every Democratic interest group desired into one package until they reached that number. They never gave the public any sense of what mattered to them. And the internal debates about the scope and contents of the package almost all involved arguments about its overall size — about how much to spend and tax rather than what to do or how to do it.

This is just one example of a broader failure to prioritize that is endemic to our politics now. Neither party can quite explain what it wants, except to keep the other party from power. That problem is vastly overdetermined, but three reasons for it do stand out among the rest.

One reason is the peculiar inability of the administration to articulate domestic priorities. What matters most to the president? What does he hope to achieve? What are his cabinet secretaries working on? Which way does he want his divided party and this divided country to move?

Throughout his career, Joe Biden has tried to position himself near the center of the Democratic coalition and be a kind of generic Democrat. This is not a bad strategy for a senator with a safe seat, and it obviously worked for him. But it’s not as good a strategy for a president with an internally divided party. A president’s strength as an executive can often be measured by whether his mid-level political appointees know what he would do in their place — whether an assistant secretary in one department or another can say “If the president had my job, I know how he would make the decision I’m now facing.” This was obviously impossible on most issues in the Trump era, since President Trump’s implacable ignorance, pathological amorality, and blinding narcissism made him reactive and unpredictable. This was part of why he was such a weak president and achieved so little that will endure. But it is also practically impossible in the Biden era, because President Biden has generally refused to identify himself with any side of any dispute within the Democratic coalition. Given his history, he would seem to represent the more moderate wing of the party, but that’s not really evident in anything his administration has done, or any role he has played in any legislative process. It’s hard to say what he wants, so he isn’t helping his party tell the public what it wants either. This was painfully evident last week when Speaker Pelosi told her members that Biden’s presidency depended on their voting for the reconciliation bill immediately and then Biden himself declined to embrace that approach and tried to put himself between the moderates and progressives.

A second reason, related to the first, has more to do with Congress. The habits of polarization, which have evolved over the past generation in Washington, involve party leaders in Congress asserting themselves rather than party factions negotiating. This helps the parties confront one another more starkly, but it doesn’t help the parties negotiate internal differences. Leaders in this polarized era want to mask and submerge internal divisions, rather than to work them out, and that makes bargaining within each party pretty difficult, as both parties have learned when they have held power. The Democrats tend to respond to this problem by proposing to do everything at once — stuffing every idea they’ve ever had into one big bill. Republicans tend to respond to the same problem by proposing to do nothing — just simply nothing whatsoever. That is basically what Republicans ran on in 2020, for instance. Voters tend not to be impressed by either strategy. And this problem will only become more serious as the internal differences within the parties grow.

A third and deeper source of the bipartisan failure to prioritize in our time suggests just why those divisions will grow. It has to do with the gradual transformation of the electoral coalitions of the two parties, which has left both increasingly baffled by the nature of the internal debates they confront. Both parties are changing as the American elite is changing, and a lot of their internal fractures look like tensions between their past and their future. The Democrats are gradually taking the shape of something like a fun-house mirror version of the Eisenhower coalition — upscale whites plus many black voters. (Obviously the black vote was much more divided at mid-century than now, and it was also much more suppressed by Southern racism, but those were key elements of the self-understanding of Eisenhower’s coalition.) Republicans are gradually taking the shape of a fun-house mirror version of the FDR coalition — blue-collar whites and some blue-collar ethnic minorities who will eventually be considered white. (The latter described some ethnic European Catholic minorities for FDR, it describes some Hispanic voters for today’s GOP). Both analogies are lacking, to be sure, but they suggest something about the general course of things. This marks a significant change for both parties, and they are gradually going to have to change what they offer voters, particularly on economic issues, in order to make this work.

This is not to suggest that the Democrats will become a right-wing party or that Republicans will become progressives. History doesn’t repeat, it just rhymes. Republicans, if they can figure their way through this quandary, will remain a socially conservative party and a broadly market-friendly party, but one that tries to offer working-class voters greater economic stability alongside material help in meaningfully entering markets as consumers. The reform-conservative agenda offered a first stab at this in the 2010s, and it also focused on what I would expect will be the most potent economic message of the next few years: reducing the cost of living for working families. For all the huffing and puffing that has filled the years since, I do think that still remains the obvious framework for the future of the GOP.

The Democrats’ emerging electoral coalition, meanwhile, gives them a lot of room to remain socially liberal but it argues for a less populist economic framework (except for those forms of pseudo-populism that actually appeal to elite white voters, like forgiving student loans and the like), a more pro-business stance on taxes and regulation, and more emphasis on the elements of progressivism that speak to upscale voters — especially the technocratic managerialism.

Neither of these is really a revolutionary transformation of either party. The Democrats would remain the party of the Left and the GOP the party of the Right. But the changes involved would require a re-prioritization, and that’s what we’re seeing lots of trouble with now.

One fascinating illustration of this on the Left involves the differences between senators Manchin and Sinema themselves. In essence Joe Manchin is what moderate Democrats used to be, and Kyrsten Sinema is what moderate Democrats are going to be. In a recent profile of Sinema, the Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim and Ashley Parker gestured toward this dynamic when they noted with perplexity that, “While Sinema embraces the party’s platform on climate, she — to most Democrats — remains stubbornly conservative on corporate and individual tax rates, while Manchin has effectively been the reverse.” The same could be said about a lot of issues. Although they are both uncomfortable with the BBB agenda, Manchin and Sinema are very different sorts of moderates, and the difference is one important reason why prioritizing has been difficult for the Democrats.

These changing party coalitions have left both parties a little perplexed, and as a result also a little resistant to normal electoral pressures. Both refuse to learn from election losses, and so to find ways to adjust to changing voter demands. The Democrats narrowly lost a winnable election in 2016 and rushed to attribute the loss to Russian intelligence operations, misinformation on Facebook, and the like — forces that ranged from imaginary to marginal. Republicans just as narrowly lost a winnable election in 2020 and rushed to attribute that loss to some kind of massive conspiracy of fraud — essentially a paranoid delusion. There is obviously a lot more at work in both cases, but both parties are just not sufficiently curious about the reasons for the public’s intense distaste for them.

Republicans are on the whole in worse shape in this respect — their escapism is more deranged and more dangerous. But the more energetic portion of their coalition is nonetheless pushing Republicans in the direction of the middle of the electorate, while the Democrats’ activists are pushing the party away from the middle. Republicans therefore seem better situated to win elections and govern over the coming decade. But to make the most of the opportunity they will need to not just leave behind the psychoses of the cult of Trump (which will be hard enough) but also to prioritize internally in ways that can enable the party to offer something to its voters and to winnable voters in the middle.

The Democrats don’t have the same kind of mass psychological breakdown to overcome, but their political challenge is more daunting. They have no functional mechanisms for distinguishing good from bad ideas, and their elites are in the grip of a cultural reign of terror the forces them into saying and doing some really strange and damaging things. A party of “birthing persons” and apple pie isn’t going to win the middle of the country.

But their greatest challenge may be more mundane than that. The key economic-policy battleground of the immediate future is likely to be the challenge of rising living costs, and if the BBB legislation is any sign, Democrats are not well equipped to fight on that front. They remain committed to addressing high costs through a combination of subsidizing demand and restricting supply. This is essentially the left’s approach to health care, higher education, housing, and now (in this new bill) child-care. Increased demand and reduced supply is, broadly speaking, a recipe for higher prices and therefore higher costs. If the new swing voters are suburban parents, a program that risks drastic increases in child-care costs is a way to lose the future. If Republicans are prepared to respond, they may find themselves with an extraordinary opportunity.

But it’s far from clear if Republicans can be prepared. The failure to prioritize is a thoroughly bipartisan problem now. The first party to recognize it and find a way to overcome it — the first party to recover its ability to engage in traditional politics — could own the next few years.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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