Column: Progressives, give Biden the victory he needs and the Democrats a chance to win in 2022

President Biden with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the Capitol on Friday.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

Take what you can get.

Unless progressive Democrats follow that advice, they stand to get nothing in their standoff with moderates over the breadth and cost of the party’s 10-year package of infrastructure, climate change and social welfare initiatives.

And they’d likely get nothing for a good, long while: A party meltdown on President Biden’s agenda would all but ensure that Republicans, already favored, would recapture majority control of the House and Senate in next year’s midterm election, leaving him and the party legislatively impotent.

Retreat is a maddening prospect, I know. There are many more progressives in Congress and yet, as they’re quick to complain, they’re often the ones forced to give ground to a smaller band of centrists.


The stubborn self-righteousness of the two moderate Democratic holdouts in the Senate — Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — makes it all the harder to swallow any concessions. (Even if Sinema gets what she wants, she will have burnished her reputation for eccentricity; she’s failed to make clear what she’d accept in the negotiations, and then, while other lawmakers stayed in Washington in case of a breakthrough, she flew home for a spa retreat with donors.)

But while progressives have the greater numbers, the math favors the moderates. Against united Republican opposition, the Democrats’ tenuous majorities give them only three votes to spare in the House, and none in a 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris is the tiebreaker. And moderates simply don’t care as much as progressives whether these initiatives become law.

It’s as true today as when 19th century German statesman Otto von Bismarck first uttered these words: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”

For progressives, it’s not possible for Congress to pass a $3.5-trillion, 10-year package of spending programs and family tax breaks, on top of a bipartisan infrastructure bill for nearly $1 trillion to build and repair roads, bridges, ports, broadband systems and a charging system for electric cars.

Biden has signaled as much: In a private caucus with House Democrats on Friday afternoon at the Capitol, he suggested a bottom line in the range of $2 trillion.

Manchin is still insisting that his ceiling is $1.5 trillion. But Biden likely wouldn’t have gone to Capitol Hill if he and his advisors didn’t think some compromise was possible in the coming days. To lose now would make him look ineffectual. The president campaigned on the promise that he knows how to make deals in Congress, and he can’t even reach one in his own party?


So here’s another aphorism for progressives: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Progressives gave up a lot before Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, yet then-Vice President Biden famously called it a BFD. It was. And the so-called “Build Back Better” bill would be a BFD as well, even if its price tag is significantly reduced from $3.5 trillion. (Whatever the cost, that’s a gross number; Democrats also are proposing tax increases on corporations and the wealthiest individuals to offset it.)

For Democrats to pass even a compromise bill, as well as the bipartisan infrastructure measure, would be an achievement that would give them perhaps their best chance at defying the midterm jinx against the party that holds the White House.

The legislative victories likely would lift Biden’s declining approval ratings, and his party’s standing, too. Right now he’s teetering between looking like a failure or a statesman. And the party faces a defining moment, testing whether it can still pull together when necessary, or whether the left has become as uncompromising — and self-defeating — as the Republican right.

With success, Democrats could campaign like heck not only to protect their slim majorities but to add to them — and come back in 2023 to build on their legislative successes in the latter half of Biden’s term.