The Centrist (Political) Suicide Squad

The nine House members threatening to tank the Biden legislative agenda are teaching a master class in how to lose elections

President Obama once took flack for referring in jest to his foreign policy doctrine as “don’t do stupid shit.” In an irony that was lost on almost everyone in Washington, the people most offended by Obama’s terminology was the national security establishment that pushed to invade Iraq — the textbook definition of “stupid shit.”.

“Don’t do stupid shit” is a good approach to politics, which is why I was disappointed to wake up on Friday to a group of centrist House Democrats doing some epically stupid shit.

Nine moderate House Democrats sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi that threatened to bring the momentum for the President’s legislative agenda to a screeching halt. The members declared:

“We will not consider voting for a budget resolution until the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passes the House and is signed into law.”

Nearly all nine of these Democrats are on the National Republican Congressional Committee’s target list. Depending on the redistricting process in their states, many of them may be engaging in the fight of their lives in very purple or reddish districts. I imagine some mediocre political consultant has convinced them that it would be a good idea to bolster their bipartisan bona fides by taking a stand against the party leadership on behalf of a bipartisan bill. There was a time when this was a good political move, but that time is well past us.

If these Democrats follow through on their threat, they will decrease their own chances of getting reelected and endanger the entire Democratic enterprise. This whole thing could end up being a speed bump on the path to a massive Democratic legislative victory for progressives, but it illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of modern politics that could bedevil our party in 2022.

Why All the Fuss?

You may be asking yourself — “There are 220 House Democrats, why should I care what nine people have to say in a letter? Also, who the hell are these people?” These are fair questions. I can answer the former. I am still trying to figure out the latter.

With such a narrow majority, Speaker Pelosi cannot afford to lose nine members on any vote. This declaration has thrown a wrench into a legislative strategy that is months in the making. The short version is that House progressives will only support the bipartisan infrastructure deal being discussed this week if the Senate passes a bigger, more progressive bill through the budget reconciliation process. In cooperation with Senator Schumer and President Biden, Speaker Pelosi announced that she would hold the Senate-passed infrastructure bill until after the Senate had passed the rest of the Biden Build Back Better agenda. That was the plan until Friday at least. Now Pelosi has some members who won’t vote for the bipartisan bill before the budget bill and vice versa. This is a legislative standoff. If no side backs down, neither bill will pass.

Centrism v. Moderation

The nine House members who signed the threatening letter represent only a slice of the moderate wing of the House Democratic Caucus. The decision of some prominent moderates like Rep. Stephanie Murphy to not sign the letter helps demonstrate the distinction between moderation and centrism. Moderation is an ideology and centrism is an identity. Moderates believe in certain policy positions. For example, a moderate may support strengthening the Affordable Care Act instead of Medicare for All or increasing corporate taxes instead of a wealth tax. Centrists pick a position two steps closer to the center no matter what and tend to go out of their way to poke a stick in the eye of party leaders to prove a point. For moderates, policy is the point. For centrists, it’s all about the performance. Amy Klobuchar is a moderate. Kyrsten Sinema is a centrist.

For much of the 1990s, centrism was the dominant political strategy in the Democratic party. This approach was best embodied by Bill Clinton’s 1996 “triangulation” strategy, which was designed by Dick Morris and Mark Penn — two men who would go on to provide counsel to Donald Trump during his presidency. Essentially, the goal was to run against both parties in order to appeal to a large group of swing voters that shifted from party to party in every election. The letter from the moderates is a page out of that playbook. This shouldn't be surprising since Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who helped spearhead the letter, is a protege of Mark Penn.

The reason the demand in this letter is centrist, not moderate, is because it is purely process-based. In the end, what is to be gained by passing the bipartisan infrastructure deal a few weeks earlier? It has already been passed by the Senate. It is not going to be changed. These moderates are also holding out their vote on a procedural motion that is nothing more than an empty vessel. 

As Jonathan Chait pointed out in New York Magazine:

“...the moderate House Democrats have been loading up the reconciliation bill with a series of conflicting demands. On the one hand, they have been complaining about its overall size and pushing to shrink down the headline number. On the other hand, they have been making their own costly demands. Josh Gottheimer, one letter signer, has been crusading for a restoration of the state and local tax deduction, a benefit for some of his affluent constituents. Jim Costa, another signer, wants to protect the heirs to massive fortunes from any taxation on their windfall. … The moderate Democrats are the biggest obstacle to making the math work, simultaneously complaining about the size of the bill while ordering more expensive goodies for themselves.”

Speaker Pelosi originally adopted this two-track strategy because progressives in her caucus wanted leverage over the budget reconciliation process in the more moderate Senate. Holding back the vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill served as that leverage. While the progressive approach seems like the inverse of what the moderates just did, it isn’t. The House will consider the budget bill passed by the Senate, and any bill that makes it to the House must be approved by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. These nine House moderates are accomplishing nothing substantive by gumming up the works.

It’s a political tactic and a really dumb one too.

The Folly of Centrist Political Strategy

The old Clintonian tactic of running against both parties was highly effective in the 1990s, but politics has changed a lot since then. With a tiny handful of exceptions, including Joe Manchin, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and maybe one or two others, there is no recent record of success in employing this strategy. This play is particularly foolhardy for three reasons:

First, successfully running against your party depends on the presence of a sufficient number of split-ticket voters — people who vote for a Democrat for one office and a Republican for another in the same election. This used to be fairly common, which is why Democratic Senators represented traditionally Republican states like North Dakota, South Dakota, and Louisiana. But ticket splitters — as they are known — are now quite rare. As Nathaniel Rakich and Ryan Best reported in FiveThirtyEight:

“The Democratic share of the House popular vote was within 5 percentage points of Biden’s vote share in every state. And even though House Democrats did underperform Biden overall (so far, they have received 50.6 percent of the national House popular vote to Biden’s 51.1 percent), that 0.5-point difference is nothing to write home about.”

In other words, most people vote for the same party up and down the ballot. Therefore, the number of voters that are open to a message from the mouth of a Democrat that villainizes Democrats is very small.

Second, Joe Biden is popular. His agenda is even more popular. Are these members really planning to run a platform on defeating the very popular agenda of a popular president over a process foul? Many moderates have referred to themselves as “Biden Democrats” as a way to demonstrate their ideological moderation.

Finally, the odds that Democrats maintain their narrow majorities are tied to President Biden’s approval rating. The higher Biden’s poll numbers the better Democrats will do in 2022. The history of recent elections is quite clear. In this century, the opposition has made huge gains in midterm elections four times. In each of those elections, the president’s approval rating was underwater. The one exception was 2002 when President George W. Bush bucked trends and the Republicans picked up seats in the House and Senate. Bush’s approval ratings at the time were incredibly high. Vulnerable Democrats need Biden to be popular. Tanking Biden’s popular agenda and creating a narrative of weakness and failure would definitely hurt his popularity. These moderates need Biden to succeed. Instead, they are doing the exact opposite.

The old and potentially apocryphal Benjamin Franklin adage comes to mind during midterm elections. “We must all hang together, or ... we shall all hang separately." Democrats face a steep hill in 2022 — particularly in the House of Representatives. A divided Democratic Party will get clobbered and the vulnerable Democrats that signed this letter will surely not return to Congress.

Quickly passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Biden Build Back Better agenda through the reconciliation process will not solve all of the Democratic Party’s political problems. Passage of these bills certainly does not guarantee that we win in 2022. But failing to pass them will guarantee that we lose. This is why it is hard to conjure something as self-defeating and stupid as what those nine moderates did last week.