The antics last week of the Democratic Party’s showboating centrists in the Senate, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, caused confusion, outrage, frustration, and fury. Here was Manchin delaying a vote on the pandemic relief package for most of a day so that he could force a reduction in unemployment benefits. Here was Sinema flouncing onto the Senate floor to give a thumbs-down on the effort to get a raise in the federal minimum wage into the bill. If you were cringe-watching on C-SPAN, you wanted to reach for the rotten tomatoes. It was a farce that launched a thousand shrieks, especially on Left Twitter.
As it played out, the two renegades didn’t doom the American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden plans to sign into law on Friday.[*] But there’s a rare moment of opportunity here, measurable in months, and Manchin and Sinema seem determined to make sure the Democrats waste it. With control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the Democrats for once have a chance to govern. Manchin and Sinema are taking obvious pleasure in being the two most unreliable members of the Democrats’ fifty-one vote majority (counting Vice President Kamala Harris) in the Senate. Both are determined to protect the Senate filibuster, which effectively requires a sixty-vote majority to pass anything not strictly budget-related. So just about anything worth doing—raising the federal minimum wage, protecting voting rights, funding infrastructure and clean energy—can be blocked by Republicans. And Manchin and Sinema continue to insist there has never been a nobler form of democracy than what is practiced in the United States Senate.
Among those who worry that just one Democratic defection in the Senate can halt the party’s drive to turn the country away from Trumpism, dire scenarios proliferate: the Democrats will lose control of the House and Senate in the 2022 midterms, and the Biden presidency will end in a whimper. Biden will serve his final two years with Republican obstructionists running Congress, and his party will go into the 2024 general election with no inspiring record to run on. A new round of voter suppression laws will have passed in key states by then, and Republicans will once again eke out a win in the Electoral College and rule the country as a vindictive minority party with control of all three branches of government.
Manchin and Sinema are taking obvious pleasure in being the two most unreliable members of the Democrats’ fifty-one vote majority in the Senate.
But not to worry! Senators Manchin and Sinema will be living the bipartisan dream. When Republicans regain control of the Senate, they will have many opportunities to make legislative deals with their Republican friends, and surely the reinstated Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, will turn to them for wise counsel as he pushes the post-pandemic agenda of budget cuts and tax breaks for the wealthy. Manchin and Sinema will even be able to crow about their great accomplishment of 2021: they preserved the Senate filibuster. See? Now that Democrats are in the minority again, they will point out, it’s a good thing they can bring McConnell to heel by showing him the power of the minority party.
Could this really be the course Democratic centrists have in mind? What game are Manchin and Sinema playing? What game do they think they are playing?
Manchin’s snit last Friday perplexed even some fellow moderates. Along with other conservatives, he’d already succeeded in pushing for a reduction in the weekly unemployment boost in the House proposal, from $400 to $300. But then, after Democrats thought they had agreement to extend the benefits through September, with (for most earners) the first $10,200 in benefits exempted from taxes, Manchin decided to put on his show. These final details had not been cleared with him, he claimed. He huddled on the Senate floor with Ohio Republican Rob Portman. Maybe he liked Portman’s plan better, he signaled. More “fiscally responsible,” you know. Even Sinema was urging Manchin to stay on board with the Democrats. After almost ten hours of negotiations, Manchin relented. The details hadn’t changed much; the extension of benefits would expire on September 6 instead of the end of September. Whatever cost savings Manchin wrung out were miniscule; it’s hard to imagine he won any credibility with the budget hawks.
You might think Manchin’s stand made no sense logically or politically. Did he believe the people of West Virginia would rise up and say, “God bless Joe Manchin for cutting back on unemployment benefits!” More likely, the policy details mattered not a whit to him. His power play was meant to demonstrate that if you want to get anything done in the Senate you’ll need to—paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson here—kiss Manchin’s ass at high noon and tell him it smells like roses. He’s counting on the voters back home to not register the ways he sold out their interests. The reaction he’s going for is: “ol’ Joe Manchin sure stood up to the liberal Democrats, didn’t he?”
Sinema’s calculation is the same. She started her political career as a Green Party activist in Arizona and was once “privileged to teach political skills to Arizonans eager to create progressive policy at the Center for Progressive Leadership,” according to her 2009 tract, Unite and Conquer. But since being elected to the U.S. House in 2012 and then the Senate in 2018, she’s rebranded as an independent-minded moderate. That means keeping people guessing about what she really stands for. Though she has publicly touted her support for Congressional action to increase in the minimum wage—and though a measure to raise the level to $12 an hour by 2020 passed with strong support in an Arizona referendum in 2016—Sinema took the opportunity to cast a showy vote against it last week. Why not? It wasn’t going to pass anyway, and there was the procedural excuse that the Senate parliamentarian had already ruled it wasn’t germane to the pandemic relief bill. The benefit for Sinema is that she can say to Arizona business owners that she stood up to the socialists and the libs on the minimum wage.
When you read the inside-the-Beltway profiles of what makes Manchin and Sinema tick, you hear about how savvy they are about the politics of their home states. Manchin, a former governor of West Virginia, has managed to survive as a Democrat even in a place that has become one of the most Trump-loving states in the union. Arizona narrowly voted for Biden in November and now has two Democratic senators, and yet the state is still crawling with Republicans and independents who can be activated against the liberal agenda. Andy Biggs, an Arizona Republican congressman, told The Atlantic’s Russell Berman recently that Sinema is perhaps “the most skilled political figure in Arizona.” Biggs added that “she reads her constituency as good as or better than virtually any person in political life that I know.”
One might ask, then, what harm comes from Congressional centrists doing their little dances, if it ultimately helps them hold onto their seats, preserving a Democratic majority. (One could also wonder about how shrewd they really are if they can’t even defend economic measures that have broad public support; even West Virginia’s Republican governor urged Congress to “go big” on the stimulus package.) In the end, both Manchin and Sinema voted for the American Rescue Plan, giving Biden a victory, and giving a lot of people across the country—especially those living in poverty—some tangible benefits.
But there’s a real possibility that it’s all downhill from here. As long as Manchin and Sinema defend the use of the filibuster in the Senate, they are doing the bidding of Republican obstructionists. As long as they cling to their deluded view that Democrats and Republicans can work together on future legislation, it’s fair to ask how savvy these pols really are. When they speak of “coming together across the aisle,” you have to wonder if they’ve been asleep under a rock since 1994. Have you met the current Republican Party, Senators?
Not a single Republican in Congress voted for the current relief bill. But it’s much worse than that: the GOP has an ironclad policy against voting for anything that comes from Democratic leadership. That’s the story of the Obama administration, which Mitch McConnell signaled from the get-go would get no Republican cooperation—in the hopes, he said, of making Obama a one-term president. There was not a single Republican vote in the House or Senate for the final passage of Obamacare, which was signed into law eleven years ago this month. And that piece of social legislation only exists because for a brief moment early in Obama’s term, the Senate had a filibuster-proof majority of sixty votes.
This kind of rigid partisanship is deplored by Democratic centrists. Yet they never seem to do anything about it, other than to bow to Republican rigidity. You didn’t see Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema, for example, making any headway in convincing Senators Mitt Romney or Susan Collins to show some bipartisan unity on the pandemic relief legislation. Why couldn’t Manchin convince his friend Rob Portman to vote for it? Portman has already announced he’s not even running for reelection. But still, he wouldn’t break ranks.
American democracy needs an answer to the increasingly militant, unyielding, and even violent, partisanship on the Republican right.
In Berman’s Atlantic profile of Sinema, she resisted using the word “progressive” to describe her current politics. “I pride myself on being a lifelong learner, and I believe a sign of maturity is an interest in learning and growing,” she said in a written response. If that’s true, she ought to study up on some of the literature about partisanship in America. I’d recommend the work of Nancy Rosenblum, a Harvard scholar who has written in defense of political partisanship. Rosenblum dismisses the idea that you can have democratic politics without partisanship, or that independents are somehow superior to partisans. She was suspicious of the early Obama-era rhetoric equating partisanship with divisiveness. As she wrote in 2009:
What we need is not nonpartisanship or occasional bipartisanship but better partisanship. It would be better for democratic politics if party leaders and partisan voters articulated an ethic of partisanship and did not cede the moral high ground to Independents. Democracy needs strong parties and strong partisans.
And right now, American democracy needs an answer to the increasingly militant, unyielding, and even violent, partisanship on the Republican right. Rosenblum makes a useful distinction between legitimate partisanship and political extremism. In her view of the ethics of partisanship, inclusivity is a key principle, which includes “a desire to win office (and power) on the most democratic terms possible—with a popular mandate.”
It is now one of the central tenets of the Republican Party to fight on all fronts against inclusivity. Guided by their de facto leader Donald Trump and Machiavellian strategists like Mitch McConnell, they will attempt to regain power on the most undemocratic terms possible. That’s what Rosenblum sees as unethical partisanship.
What a true “lifelong learner” ought to be thinking about is this: is it ethical to hold onto simplistic and outdated beliefs in bipartisanship when the result will be to frustrate any true popular mandate? “Politics is not only about standing for. It is always also about standing with,” Rosenblum writes. The fifty Democratic senators have an obligation to act on their mandate; after all, they represent millions more voters than the fifty Republicans do. Ethical partisanship means standing with their fellow Democrats, but also with the frustrated majority that approves of a minimum wage increase, approves of expanded voting rights instead of further voter suppression, and cares nothing at all about contrived Senate rules that can never work when only one party believes in compromise. If there is such a thing as ethical partisanship, isn’t there also a tendency among some Washington Democrats to promote an unethical, unworkable, and one-sided—which is to say fraudulent—bipartisanship?
[*] Update: Biden signed the bill into law on Thursday, a day earlier than originally planned.