The Centrists Obstructing Biden’s Agenda Are Not “Moderate” or “Pragmatic”

They are blocking the policies most popular with the Democratic base—and even most independents.

The framing of most mainstream news stories after the delay of the infrastructure vote in Congress has been remarkable. Supposedly “straight” news stories assume a reflexive editorial position that the Democrats on the more conservative edges of the caucus are wiser and more pragmatic on both policy and political grounds—and that the more progressive positions are intransigent, pie-in-the-sky, and electorally irresponsible.

The New York Times declares that “progressives flexed, but remain empty-handed” and “moderates feel betrayed.” The Politico Playbook lede begins with astonishment that President Joe Biden did not help the few centrist holdouts who were sabotaging his campaign promises. “‘The fact that the president came to the Hill and whipped against his own bill is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,’” a source told the news site. “The late-night observation was just one of many we heard from frustrated lawmakers and senior aides stunned by what happened in the House on Friday.” Dan Balz at TheWashington Post similarly portrays the impasse as a “revolt” by liberals taking advantage of a “gaffe” by Biden in suggesting that the bipartisan infrastructure and Build Back Better bills would move in tandem—as if the entire strategic purpose for the centrists delinking the two bills were not to hamstring or even scuttle the bulk of the Biden agenda entirely.

Perhaps most stunningly, another piece at the Times makes the remarkable editorial statement that “liberal lawmakers, who by and large come from safe Democratic districts, have the political luxury of holding firm, but they will now face the ire of Democrats in swing districts who gave their party its slender majorities in the House and Senate.” The bias betrayed here by coauthors Jonathan Weisman and Emily Cochrane is a disservice to readers and to the truth.

These portraits come from decades of institutional prejudice in the most exalted media circles toward viewing the left flank of the Democratic Party as unreasonable and irresponsible. Now, they are serving as easy but misleading crutches for those publications in describing the outlines of the most crucial policy negotiation story in years.

The reality is that the centrists obstructing Biden’s agenda are neither moderate nor pragmatic nor responsible. They do not represent the views of the majority, or even a significant minority, of the caucus; they are out of step with what President Biden campaigned on in both the primary and general elections (much less with most of the base to the president’s left, which nominated him more out of electoral pragmatism than policy agreement); and it is therefore no surprise that not only the White House but also congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are siding with the progressives. Let’s briefly examine why.

1) The president’s agenda—and, by extension, the progressive wing’s priorities—is extremely popular.

Poll after poll after poll show that the Build Back Better bill (also known as the “reconciliation bill”) is extremely popular. It’s not just popular nationwide; it’s popular in swing districts, too. It is even backed by 39 percent of Republicans (!), to say nothing of 61 percent of independents. Non-college-educated whites, now increasingly the Achilles’ heel of the Democratic coalition, support it in equal numbers to college-educated whites—making the bill unusual in the constellation of liberal priorities.

It’s not hard to understand why. Tax increases on the obscenely wealthy and on big corporations are quite popular, even among populist socially conservative voters. The programs are even more popular: 81 percent want Medicare to negotiate on drug prices; 84 percent want to expand Medicare to include dental, vision, and hearing benefits; even the much-maligned child tax credit stands at 59 percent support, per a Reuters/Ipsos poll, and outperforms Biden’s approval among Republicans by 11 percent.

Even in deep red West Virginia, where Senator Joe Manchin remains the largest roadblock in the Democratic caucus to a robust infrastructure bill, the $3.5 trillion proposal is extremely popular. After all, most of the proposals are specifically designed to help working-class Americans often shut out of the economy’s centralized gains—including those who live in West Virginia.

There is no reason to believe that backing a robust reconciliation package will harm Democratic chances in frontline districts and purple states. Which leads to the next point:

2) Most frontline Democrats are in line with Biden and the progressives, while many of the holdout centrists are in safe seats.

The usual framing of “safe” progressives in opposition to “threatened” moderates falls apart on closer inspection. While some of the centrists obstructing the Biden agenda are indeed in difficult seats, many are not. House centrist ringleader Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey won his last election by seven points in a district that is rapidly trending blue and voted for Biden over Trump by six points. His ally Henry Cuellar won his last election by almost 20 points in a Texas district where Clinton beat Trump by the same margin. Fellow centrist holdout Ed Case is in a thoroughly safe seat in Hawaii. And so on

In the Senate, Manchin is indeed far above replacement value in this deeply red state—though again, the progressive Biden bill is very popular there, and it is not clear that Manchin even intends to seek reelection in 2025. But the same cannot be said of fellow Senate holdout Kyrsten Sinema in bluing Arizona. Sinema’s fellow Arizona Democratic senator, Mark Kelly, has been much more supportive of the linked reconciliation page, and Sinema’s intransigence is causing her own popularity to plummet.

And, of course, many Democratic representatives and senators in tough states and districts, like Katie Porter in California’s 45th District and Jon Tester in Montana, are not causing headaches for leadership or setting themselves at odds with progressives on these popular priorities.

There is no reason to believe that the holdouts in frontline districts have any greater wisdom about what will succeed electorally than those in similar districts who are in line with the president—to say nothing of the inexcusable obstructionists in safe districts. Nor can they be reasonably said to be wiser on the underlying policy, which leads to the final point:

3) Cutting the reconciliation bill is not responsible policy.

Entire shelves’ worth of books have been written on this subject, so it hardly needs reiterating here that America’s investment in both its physical infrastructure and its people lags far behind much of the rest of the developed world—with concomitant gaps in incomes, equality, and mobility. Even the $3.5 trillion (spread out over 10 years!) in the reconciliation bill is a mere fraction of what would be required to bring the United States into the 21st century.

Because the reconciliation bill must be revenue neutral, it does not increase deficits (though America’s debt-to-GDP level remains in safe territory, and borrowing is incredibly cheap due to historically low interest rates, so deficit spending would not, in fact, be a problem). The spending is paid for by taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, whose effective rates in the United States due to loopholes and lax enforcement remain laughably low. The cost of natural disasters and climate mitigation in the future will far, far exceed the cost of working to address it today should we fail. The longer we take to address it, the more costly it will be in both lives and money.

The obviousness of all this from an economic perspective leads opponents of the Build Back Better bill to fall on false conservative talking points about American “competitiveness” abroad, or risible declarations like Manchin’s recent statement that the benefits in the bill would make Americans “soft.” Apple, Google, and Caterpillar are not successful because of the difference in the American corporate tax rate versus Germany’s, nor are Swedes, Brits, or Koreans “softer” than Americans. These arguments are barely worth humoring with stenography in a newspaper, any more than anti-vaccine or flat-earth claims would be.

In short, there is no excuse for journalists in major media to privilege the claims of the centrists holding back the Biden agenda in the reconciliation bill as somehow smarter, wiser, or more responsible. They are not. Instead of giving them cover, it might be worth looking harder at why they seem to be coming to such indefensible positions on both electoral and policy terms.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist, and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” and president of the Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.