The current debate within the Democratic Party is one that our existing political nomenclature can’t quite capture, and yes, this is one of those high-octane posts about “political nomenclature,” so get your finger or cursor ready to click the heck out of that share button! The deal is, a loosely affiliated group of so-called centrist or moderate members in Congress is blocking action on several fronts:
• Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin are refusing to eliminate or reform the filibuster process, which is preventing the Senate from passing voting rights legislation—or any other legislation that can’t get through the budget reconciliation loophole.
• A group of House Democrats who receive substantial contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, HuffPost reports, are trying to kill legislation that would allow the government to use its purchasing power to negotiate down the prices that Medicare recipients pay out of pocket for prescription drugs. (Medicare covers some, but not all, drug costs.)
• An anonymous House Democrat told the insider publication Punchbowl News that Senate Democrats’ $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” reconciliation spending plan is “a non-starter for many of us” because it includes “massive new taxes.”
These are the sort of positions—institutionalist, industry-friendly, anti-tax—that self-styled moderate Democrats have traditionally taken to make themselves seem more practical and sensible than their party’s left wing. But the moderates of 2021 are not defying progressives, leftists, liberals, activists, or “the Squad”—or, at least, those are not the primary groups they’re defying. Voting rights protections, prescription drug reforms, and reconciliation spending are the top current priorities of President Joe Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, three figures who consider themselves extremely pragmatic and centrist and who hold their positions in large part because center-inclined voters and members of Congress have long trusted them to protect their interests.
The establishment leaders have a strong argument that their agenda at the moment is what looks truly centrist. The polls say that making it easier to vote, making drugs cheaper, and spending money that you raised by taxing corporations and wealthy people on elder care and child care subsidies are all comfortably popular ideas. The thinking goes that if you pass popular legislation that makes voters’ lives easier, you have a better chance of reelection.
There’s another theory of political moderation, though, which is that you get reelected by proving you can “work together with the other side” and by avoiding backlash. There is some grounding for this theory too: Voters always say they support “bipartisan solutions,” Joe Manchin keeps getting reelected in West Virginia despite a heavily Republican electorate, and lots of Democrats lost their seats during the 2010 backlash against the Affordable Care Act. (This theory of politics, incidentally, tends to call for behavior that overlaps with the interests of corporate tax lobbyists.)
The question before the Democratic Party is which centrist theory most correctly describes the current reality, and there happens to be a natural experiment out there that could answer that question. Arizona has two senators who consider themselves centrists, in Sinema and astronaut Mark Kelly—and while Sinema has emphatically preserved the filibuster and emphatically voted against Biden’s proposal to raise the minimum wage, for example, making herself into one of the president’s most high-profile obstacles, Kelly voted for the minimum wage increase, is reportedly receptive to reforming the filibuster ,and has, in general, gone along with party leadership fairly quietly since taking office. (A good example of this: Kelly, like Sinema, is a member of the group trying to create a bipartisan physical infrastructure bill, but while he wasn’t captured in photographs of the group announcing their tentative deal at the White House, Sinema led the negotiations and stood in the center of the White House photo-op.)
The firm Data for Progress had the smart idea of seeing which, if any, approach to centrism was more popular with Arizona’s tipping-point electorate. The result, released Wednesday: Mark Kelly’s approval-disapproval split among Arizonans is 50–39, or +11, while Sinema’s is 44–42, or +2. The difference is basically the same among independent voters, too: Kelly 46–36, Sinema 38–38. In her effort to appear independent, this poll finds, Sinema is alienating many Democrats but not impressing independents.
A striking feature of the Biden era so far has been that the left side of the Democratic Party, the faction usually blamed for losing voters and undermining the party’s goals because of ideological purism, has reliably cooperated with leadership to help hold its narrow legislative majorities together. And while Bernie Sanders is going to the White House to make deals with the president, the biggest threat to internal discipline and political capital is manifested by figures, like Sinema, who like to think of themselves as mainstream realists. It’s the latest filing in the divorce case known as Centrism v. Bipartisanship— a Centrist Civil War, if you will, whose battlefields are the Twitter feeds of Politico and Washington Post reporters rather than the farms of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. May God help us all.