Adrian Carrasquillo: Newsweek
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
But in the wake of a bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan that continued a slide of Biden’s poll numbers, exacerbated by the ongoing uphill battle against COVID-19 and the Delta variant, Democrats are worried about a wipeout in the midterm elections next year.
According to FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s approval rating sits at 45%, with 49% disapproving. Those numbers closely mirror Bill Clinton‘s at the same point in his presidency, and are worse than Obama’s numbers in 2009.
Why does that matter?
Because Clinton lost 54 House seats and Obama lost 63.
One Democratic strategist explained to Newsweek that the party has no margin for error because of their razor-thin majority in the House — just eight seats.
The strategist described the party as “competitive” in the midterm elections if Biden is at 51% approval, headed for a good outcome if he stands at 53%, but poised to lose the House and Senate if he’s at 49% or below.
“Swing districts are three to four points more Republican than national polling,” the source said. “If Biden is down five to six points in swing districts, that’s how Democrats lose 30, 40 or 50 seats.”
Those sobering calculations are part of the reason vulnerable Democrats, or so-called frontliners, have cooled on the kind of big, bold progressive agenda that Biden has gotten behind, including a $3.5 trillion package with infrastructure and social spending components.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, Senator Joe Manchin called for a “strategic pause on the budget-reconciliation legislation” that Democrats can push through with a simple majority.
Manchin cited the costs of the plan as reason for his potential opposition.
“Now Democratic congressional leaders propose to pass the largest single spending bill in history with no regard to rising inflation, crippling debt or the inevitability of future crises,” Manchin wrote, adding that ignoring the fiscal consequences of policy choices would create a “disastrous” future for the next generation of Americans.
On Tuesday, Axios reported that Manchin would only support $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion of the package.
Another frontline member, Representative Henry Cuellar, told Newsweek that he wants to work with Biden and Democratic leadership to support children and families, address climate change, out-compete China, and fill the Medicaid coverage gap. But he made clear his support is conditional.
One condition was a provision Cuellar suggested to “make sure that the House doesn’t vote on anything that all 50 senators plus the vice president can’t support, that includes everybody over there from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin,” he said. “As blue dogs we’re looking at how do we address the deficit in this work, and as we go through the process we certainly want to make sure we do this in a thoughtful and transparent way.”
The Democratic strategist echoed the difficulty of the moment for a big tent party that must carefully move forward without setting off trip wires and losing its majority.
“The challenge for Biden is more, ‘What’s the rationale for doing all this now?'” the source asked. “What is the compelling logic when COVID hasn’t been defeated, they struggled with Afghanistan, to now say to people scared of getting re-elected to ‘take one for the team?'”
A senior Democrat told Newsweek that frontline members by nature “get nervous about a lot of things.”
“So it wouldn’t surprise me if Biden’s decline in the polls makes them nervous about signing on to progressive legislation,” the Democrat said, before chiding those moderates. “The worst thing you can do as a political party is make a bunch of promises to people and not deliver on them. That usually turns out even worse for you because then your own people are uninspired and don’t show up, and I hope we don’t fall into that trap.”
That argument was echoed by progressives who spoke to Newsweek, like Way to Win president Tory Gavito, whose progressive donor network raised $50 million for the 2020 election. The group, which is deeply embedded in Texas politics and the state’s electorate, and has conducted surveys with Democratic research firm EquisLabs, said the headline coming out of 2020 is not what moderates like Cuellar think it is.
“In Texas the question is not is something too left or right, or progressive or conservative, the headline is, ‘What have you done for me lately?'” she said. “Conditions are not shifting drastically enough coming out of COVID, and Cuellar is using his position of power to block any kind of progress, like infrastructure spending that would benefit his community.”
Progressives are digging in for a fight.
Newsweek obtained a copy of a letter written by the Institute for Policy Studies signed by 50 organizations, set to be released Thursday morning, which calls for Congress to pass the $3.5 trillion plan that would expand the Child Tax Credit, guarantee 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for all workers, provide universal preschool, slash environmental pollution and shield communities from climate disasters.
Lawmakers’ desire to fully pay for these investments, the letter states, should not affect the size or scope of the package, because Congress can easily raise more than $3.5 trillion in revenue from corporations and the wealthy who have seen their profits and net worth skyrocket for decades.
“The wealth of the country’s 708 billionaires alone rose by $1.8 trillion, or 62%, during the pandemic,” the letter states, “enough to pay for half of the ten-year cost of the $3.5 trillion package.”
Another progressive told Newsweek that moderates are ignoring the American public.
“The truth of the matter is moderates need to stop trying to play four-dimensional chess, and they need to actually listen to what Americans are telling them,” Brad Bauman, the former executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Newsweek. “They don’t want ’90s era Republican-lite approach from Democrats. Those rules are dead. They want to see the federal government play an active role and invest in their lives and stop playing this game saying they can’t afford it.”
The fiscal argument is particularly galling after many Democrats supported continuing a 20-year war in Afghanistan that cost $2 trillion, Bauman said.
But the Democratic strategist warned that the party must be very careful in how it sells any spending package, arguing that progressives are being “undisciplined” in their rhetoric about the Bernie Sanders’ negotiated bill, and that “the more this thing looks leftist, the more seats we lose.”
“The barbarians are inside the city walls,” the Democrat said of Republicans chomping at the bit to take control of the House. “It would be crazy for progressives to eke out $1 billion more in spending and lose 40 to 50 seats. You’re asking me to sell something I can’t sell, but if you say that then progressives answer that you’re a coward.”