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Hi there, here’s what you need to know for the week of July 23, 2021, in 8 minutes.

THIS WEEK INSIDE THE BIG TENT:


① By conflating the concepts of moderation and bipartisanship, Democrats made an enormous and costly category error

② How big? It led to hundreds of billions of dollars in substantive infrastructure concessions, the crowding out of democracy reform, and six months of insurrection-investigation time flushed down the toilet

③ The party's patience with the GOP is running out, and hopefully Democrats can claw back some of these concessions, but it shouldn't have been too much to ask party leaders not to indulge in magical thinking 

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MODERATIONAL ANIMALS

There’s a school of thought in American politics which holds that structural factors require Democrats but not Republicans to be or act moderate, and these factors thus explain why Democrats see so much political value in cutting deals with the GOP. Moderation is abstract and subjective—and thus hard to demonstrate—but bipartisanship, when achieved, is an empirical fact. 

Which is just to say, it isn’t just pundits and academics who believe this; it’s Democratic politicians and operatives, including those who run the party. It’s why the party prizes incrementalism over radicalism up and down its platform, and why, confronted with the task of proving democracy works, have set about trying to prove bipartisanship works, even though these are two extremely different concepts. 

You probably gathered over the years that I don’t think politics really works like this; but whereas the Democratic impulse toward moderation is often frustrating in its high opportunity cost, the conflation of moderation and bipartisanship is a disastrous error. And I think the past week, which marked the sixth month of Joe Biden’s presidency, has brought the magnitude of the error home. 

① DELAY OF THE LAND

The most dramatic developments on this score were in the House, but I want to begin in the Senate, which is after all the fulcrum of Republican obstruction. Democrats there have spent months trying (so far in vain) to find 10 or more Republican votes for part of Biden’s economic agenda. All along the challenge for Biden, but more directly for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, has been to balance the demands of members who insist on leaving the filibuster rules in place and giving bipartisanship the ol’ college try once more against the imperative not to slip back into the sucker’s role they played in 2009 and 2010. 

I actually think Schumer’s done a pretty good job given the existence of members like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin. (Grading on a Kyrv, if you will.) This week he held a floor vote to start debate on that bipartisan bill, with the express purpose of demonstrating that he won’t tolerate dilatory madness indefinitely. Republicans, naturally filibustered it. 

I don’t know what’ll happen now, the negotiators say they need “days” to finish writing the bill text. Maybe the pressure Schumer applied will work. But by now it’s beyond debate that Republicans have used Democrats’ apparent desperation for Republican cover to draw things out, slow things down, renege on things they already agreed to—without providing any commitment that their votes will be there in the end. 

At some point (and I think we reached this point months ago) the cost-benefit analysis inverts, even if the story ends in a signing ceremony with Rob Portman and Mitt Romney. That is, eventually the substantive concessions and lost time dwarf whatever political and social benefits stem from a bipartisan outcome. And that means at some point Democrats need to be willing to admit they’ve been duped and end the charade. If these Republicans really wanted to convince Schumer and the rest of us that they were negotiating in good faith, that they really just needed a few more days, it wouldn’t have been hard. They could have simply apologized for their atrocious conduct during the Obama years, told Schumer that they understand why he suspects it's all a ruse, but assured him it’s different this time. Alternatively, they could have simply not filibustered debate on their own deal.

Instead, on the day they mounted that filibuster, Mitch McConnell also threatened to withhold all Republican support for increasing the debt limit, and national political reporters treated this act of extreme partisanship as if it were the most natural thing in the world

In a way (and apart from being gross) the line McConnell drew this week might actually prove useful. The debt limit has to be raised one way or another, and with the responsibility now entirely in Democratic hands, it means they either have to abolish the filibuster, or (more likely) have to pass their much bigger, better, reconciliation bill, and use it as a vehicle for increasing the debt limit. It puts a perverse but constructive form of pressure on Democrats to actually govern.

But the upshot of all the time Democrats have spent cajoling and rehabilitating Republicans, simply to secure their votes for a historically unremarkable bill, is an announcement that those same Republicans will happily turn around and extort Democrats into passing a right-wing agenda as soon as they get the chance. The fact that Democrats responsibly voted with Republicans to increase the debt limit through Trump’s tax cuts and his disastrous maladministration of the pandemic created no enduring sense that fair play should bind both parties. If a Democratic senator from a state with a GOP governor were to die tomorrow, not only would all the effort be wasted, but the opportunity to disarm these boobytraps would be lost, and Democrats would be hostage to the very Republicans they’ve held up as exemplars of good faith. 

② WASTE OF THEIR OWN MEDICINE

The situation in the House is much less ambiguous. There Democrats spent months pleading with Republicans to participate in an investigation of their own party’s insurrection. Under the narcotizing spell of bipartisan healing (or whatever) they negotiated away all of their majority powers, and were prepared to establish a commission that would have allowed Republicans to veto subpoenas and circumscribe the inquiry. Of course, once Democrats agreed to these demands, Republicans immediately reneged, and have spent the many weeks since trying to derail the investigation completely, or turn it into a farce. When Nancy Pelosi established a House select committee to conduct that investigation, she did so reluctantly, and appointed Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) to the panel, all to underscore how hard Democrats had worked to achieve cross-party consensus on the scope and importance of the inquiry. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy responded by trying to name multiple pro-insurrection members to the committee minority. When Pelosi rejected two of them—Jim Jordan and Jim Banks—McCarthy withdrew all of his appointments, and the national press responded by memory-holing all the months Democrats wasted appealing to the GOP’s better angels and blaming both sides for allowing things to devolve into a political foodfight. 

③ ON THE LATE AND NARROW

With the latest filibuster in the Senate and the ongoing Republican insurrection coverup in the House, it seems like we’re near the end of the line for this kind of indulgence. 

Better late than never, but it shouldn’t have taken six months.

The experience of watching Democrats grapple with the nature of the GOP is a bit like an infinite loop of the closing lines of Burn After Reading. It's why it was so frustrating when Biden entered the Democratic primary in 2019, after serving as vice president through two terms of the GOP’s Obama-era sabotage, promising to cut deals with Republicans. When he actually became president, he hit on the far superior approach of proposing a big, aggressive rescue plan, touting its bipartisan support among the population, and inviting elected Republicans in all their recalcitrance to join him if they felt so inclined. The water’s warm > please get in or I may drown myself. 

The remainder of Biden’s economic agenda is very popular; the insurrection is extremely unpopular, and the idea that enacting the former or investigating the latter required Republican votes to prove Democrats’ moderation came at a huge cost. It ate up precious time we may at any moment desperately wish we had back.

Pelosi was of course absolutely right to expel Jordan and Banks from the select committee, but those six months are gone and if Republicans win the House next November, they will dismantle the investigation the following January. That is, Democrats now have just a year and a half to complete the investigation rather than two. How are we better off the way things played out than we would’ve been if she’d launched the committee the same day Senate Republicans acquitted Trump in his second impeachment trial? 

Likewise, if the bipartisan infrastructure bill fails, Senate Democrats can and likely will fold it into the bigger reconciliation bill and pass it on their own. But the cost will be measured in the myriad, multi-hundred-billion dollar concessions they made to Republicans, and precious time that they could’ve spent, say, protecting democracy. 

Sinema, who sent the party down this path, has seen her approval rating among Arizona Democrats collapse. With folks like her and Manchin in the party there may have been no way to avoid this lengthy detour, but they didn’t reach these insights alone. After the experience of 2009 and 2010, it shouldn’t have been too much to ask party leaders like Biden and Pelosi to model more responsible thinking and rhetoric about how to govern in the face of an opposition committed to their failure. We should expect them to know by now that bipartisanship isn’t something they can credibly promise; that spending six months faceplanting for the cameras to prove how hard they tried won’t necessarily win them any good will or help them curry favor with the public. What works is helping people, protecting them from harm, and if Republicans want a piece of that action, their support is welcome. 

 

An important rejoinder to those who say voter suppression is no big deal because it creates a backlash equal to or larger than new impediments to voting: Eventually the backlash subsides, but the new suppression laws remain in effect. 

In other autocracy news, state-level Republicans across the country have responded to the success of progressive ballot measures by refusing to implement them or changing the referendum rules to make getting those measures on the ballot impossible.  

In better news, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) says Democrats may include incentives for voting in their reconciliation bill, if more direct democracy protections can’t become law. Big Tent gets results!

Read Wendy Button on the real meaning of “human infrastructure” and how our neglect of both caregivers and inanimate infrastructure have tragically collided. 

If you know, you know.

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