When picking politicians, most average Americans say they want unconventional, independent thinkers who will “do the right thing,” not reflexively follow the party line, and work with the other side to “get things done.” Meanwhile, left-leaning activists obsess over policy platforms, white papers, and signals of ideological commitments like “Medicare for All” (activist centrists, for their part, look for candidates who don’t sign on to said commitments). All in all, the average voter loves an unconventional and quirky politician who marches to the beat of their own drum, while the activist voter loves to watch debates in which candidates snipe at each other over policy details.
Yet the infrastructure debacle proves that both of these methods for picking candidates are useless at best, and highly counterproductive at worst. As it turns out, the best way to pick a left-leaning or liberal politician is to choose courageous, ethical, and highly partisan ideological team players—people who can be flexible on policy specifics but ruthless in their partisanship, wielding power democratically for the common good and to advance liberal goals.
Consider the case of Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona senator posing the biggest roadblock to passing President Joe Biden’s priorities. On paper, she should be perfect for moderates and progressives alike: a former freegan Green Party activist leftist who got involved in government and tempered her ideology to work with Republicans on bipartisan legislation. She follows her own instincts, doesn’t toe a party line, and hews to what she perceives to be a form of practical bipartisanship.
In reality, though, this threading of the needle brings out the worst of all worlds. Sinema’s unconventional heterodoxy isn’t practical at all. Both her leftist history and her centrist present are marked by profound narcissism, and her refusal to work effectively with members of her own party has come at a far greater cost than any benefits from her relationships with Republicans. Her determination to slash badly needed programs central to the Biden agenda has no basis in either policy pragmatism or electoral calculus, and her insistence on negotiating with the White House in secret suggests that she knows her demands are unreasonable and would be met with hostility by both her colleagues and the public.
Picking candidates like Sinema—the independent thinker, so to speak—is also unnecessary for winning elections. Yes, Sinema serves in a historically red state that just barely turned blue, but so does Arizona’s other Democratic senator, Mark Kelly. Montana’s Jon Tester is in a far more threatened position, but he’s not obstructing the infrastructure bills. Recently elected Georgia Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are not making headlines by confounding the negotiations. Joe Manchin, Sinema’s partner in obstruction, does serve in deep red West Virginia—but it’s not clear that Manchin is even running for reelection.
It’s even worse in the House, where Josh Gottheimer and the rest of the Centrist Nine sabotaging Biden’s agenda mostly serve in safe districts. They can hardly be considered pragmatic, electorally prudent, or even “moderate” in the strict sense.
In a Congress in which Democrats face daunting structural challenges, it turns out that the most important qualities a legislator can have are a responsible temperament, ethical courage, and resolute partisanship. Whether you’re a hard-charging democratic socialist like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and Mondaire Jones, or a mild-mannered red-state Democrat like Ossoff or Conor Lamb, what matters is a team commitment to keeping Republicans out of power and advancing shared goals that help improve people’s lives, putting the common good ahead of one’s personal ambitions—and one’s donors.
There’s also a different lesson here for obsessive political activists.
In retrospect, most of the arguments in the Democratic presidential primary around the issues have turned out to have been wildly irrelevant to actual public policy. This was obvious to many at the time, but both the media and the committed warring tribes of centrists and progressives insisted on covering and waging a battle of white papers and talking points around details of health care and climate policy that would have almost zero bearing on actual outcomes.
Remember all the energy that was spent on the differences between Bernie Sanders’s and Elizabeth Warren’s approaches to paying for Medicare for All versus the Biden and Pete Buttigieg plans of “Medicare for All Who Want It”? It’s absurd in hindsight.
What actually mattered—beyond electability, of course—was 1) what the president would do to break the filibuster in the Senate to pass any sort of progressive policy at all; 2) how bold the president would be in implementing a “Day One” agenda of transformative executive orders; and 3) how willing the president would be to pass whatever policy was necessary without any pretenses at bipartisanship.
It’s hard to know how much was necessitated by negotiations with Manchin and Sinema, but insofar as President Biden has struggled since winning election, it has largely been because he’s given too much deference to bipartisanship—and has not taken enough executive action unilaterally to break the Senate logjam. Perhaps there’s little he could have done on some of these fronts, but it might help to at least be perceived to be trying harder. Either way, few of these questions so central to presidential leadership made headlines when Democrats warred with one another during the primaries.
In the future, when Democrats are picking candidates for office—be it for the state assembly or the White House—it would behoove them to pay less attention to the candidates’ policy white papers or their quirky independence from conventional wisdom, and instead to pick the most ethical, left-leaning, and temperamentally partisan team players the politics of the state or district or country will allow.