| Washington Wrap |

Dems in Game of Chicken

It’s hard to escape the impression that the loss was not just a rough patch, but a signal that something is not working

Photo: AP Images

It was a mixed week for Biden, with a stinging setback in Virginia offset by the passage of the infrastructure bill in the House. But the lesson from both is the same: Biden needs to aim for the center and not invest too much in the progressive wing, which is acting like a separate party. Right now the Virginia loss may feel like ancient history, but there’s no question that it should be a serious alarm bell for Democrats.

With the start of the campaign, Democrats eagerly pulled out the playbook that worked so well in 2018 and 2020: Zero in on Trump. It worked in the midterm elections, it worked in the 2020 presidential race, but it didn’t go so well in 2021. Maybe because of the minor point that Trump, at least for now, is not in the running. Yes, he’s in the bleachers, but not in the game. In order to win Virginia, Democrats would have needed to explain why their education platform is better. Instead they focused their efforts on portraying Glenn Youngkin, a mainstream Republican by all accounts, as a Trump copycat. It didn’t work.

It’s hard to separate the Virginia loss from what the party is going through nationally. Here’s the paradox: A party fights hard to return to power, wins control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House, only to descend into in-fighting and then fail to pass a stimulus bill for half a year, all while the president is mired in foreign policy disasters and is desperate to notch some victory on the home front.

The thing is that the differences between the moderate and progressive wings are not trivial. It’s not that they can sit down, iron out points of disagreement, and find a way to cooperate. The two wings are rivals, and there’s little love lost between them. They’re playing a game of chicken, and both sides are unable to compromise. The tension is understandable. After all, AOC’s voters are expecting something very different from Joe Manchin’s or Kyrsten Sinema’s.

And for all this, it’s hard to escape the impression that the loss was not just a rough patch, but a signal that something is not working. The attacks on Trump succeeded in getting the Democrats back in power. From the moment that was achieved, the party was judged by its actions, not by the actions of the last guy, or of the guy “who might come back if you don’t vote for us.”

Okay, Democrats might say. Virginia was bad. But at least we won New Jersey. But it was of a win of this sort that someone once said, “One more such victory and we are lost.” A good example of this was the unseating of the New Jersey state senate president by a Republican truck driver who spent $2,300 on his entire campaign. If that’s not an alarm bell, what is?

But for all this, Biden did still register an important achievement with the passing of the infrastructure bill at the end of the week, after a long and exhausting negotiation. Democrats assure that the money being poured into the new infrastructure projects will create jobs and reduce unemployment as well as drastically improving the state of the country’s infrastructure. Even though Biden had to rely on Republican votes to pass the bill, it’s a receipt he’ll be able to show the voters in the midterm elections.

And here, too, the six Democrats who voted against the bill were all members of the progressive wing. Who votes against a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill? Maybe someone for whom politics is a zero-sum game. If I don’t get everything I want, you can forget about my vote. And when facing that attitude, Pelosi was right to pursue her winning strategy of seeking moderate Republican votes.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 885)

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