Beating up on Manchin and Sinema won’t fix the Biden agenda

Progressives ignore political realities in rush to remake America

Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin put representing their states above ideological adherence, Winston writes.  (Tom WIlliams/CQ Roll Call file photos)
Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin put representing their states above ideological adherence, Winston writes. (Tom WIlliams/CQ Roll Call file photos)
Posted October 6, 2021 at 6:00am

On Jan. 23, 1996, President Bill Clinton dramatically changed course. After three years of chasing liberal rainbows like Hillarycare, watching his Democratic Party lose Congress in the historic 1994 election and with his poll numbers underwater, Clinton told the country in his State of the Union address, “The era of big government is over.” 

In the week after the speech, his job approval rating jumped 10 points in a Gallup survey, going from 42 percent approve/49 percent disapprove in early January to 52 percent approve/42 percent disapprove. By the end of the year, he would be reelected, winning 70 percent of the Electoral College.

When your political strategy isn’t working, the answer isn’t to dig in and double down but to rethink your strategy and the policies driving it.  But our current president and his Democratic Congress don’t seem capable of rethinking much of anything, much less considering the possibility that the extreme liberal agenda they’re pushing doesn’t actually reflect the country they were elected to govern.

Instead, they toy with budget gimmicks to repackage a $3.5 trillion albatross and turn it into a swan they can sell to the American people. Instead of some needed introspection, progressive Democrats have turned on their own, as left-wing activists stalked and harassed the only two Democratic senators willing to stand up to the progressive mob that now seems to control the party agenda. Their crime? They are moderates.

For the past week, we’ve seen Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona roasted as uncaring heretics for daring to suggest that the Build Back Better bill is too expensive, puts the economy at risk and would dramatically change the social fabric of the nation. Leftist kayakers swarmed Manchin’s houseboat to yell their demands as the senator responded with grace and civility. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, activists followed Sinema into a bathroom to bully her and threaten not to support her if she fails to include a “pathway to citizenship” in the reconciliation bill.  Apparently, they didn’t understand that the exclusion of immigration reform was the decision of the Senate parliamentarian, not Kyrsten Sinema.

A time for unity?

This would be the time for a president who was elected promising unity to step up and tell his party to tone it down; the time for a president who promised a return to bipartisanship to denounce the hot rhetoric and bullying tactics of leftist activists toward his party’s moderates. But on Monday, Joe Biden did the opposite, laughing off the Sinema bathroom episode by saying it “happens to everybody” and was “part of the process.”

Worse, Biden put to rest any hope that Democrats will restrain their ambition to transform the country into a socialist society when he tore into Republicans over the debt limit vote, saying, “If you don’t want to help save the country, get out of the way so you don’t destroy it.” 

Rather than take the political temperature down a notch, Biden’s shrill performance Monday was designed to appease an increasingly demanding progressive wing that believes it’s operating under a mandate for radical change.  No one better exemplifies that misguided notion than the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who tweeted this about the Build Back Better plan: “It’s President Biden’s agenda — and it’s why voters delivered Democrats the House, the Senate, and the White House. It’s too important to be left behind.”

With all due respect, Jayapal is flat-out wrong. Democrats seem to have forgotten that they gained only a tie in the Senate, and by the thinnest of margins — 13,471 votes, which is what Georgia Sen. David Perdue needed last fall to avoid the runoff he later lost. 

Those 13,471 votes represent 0.0084 percent of the 159,738,337 votes cast in last year’s election, or eight thousandths of 1 percent. That tiny margin eventually gave Democrats a 50-50 Senate. The election also gave them a remarkably small edge in the House. But it did not give them a mandate to radically transform the country or bury generations in debt in order to create a socialist welfare state that has been the dream of progressives for years.

Ignoring reality

That political reality ought to be reflected in how Biden and Democratic leaders try to build majority votes in the Senate. In a bipartisan move, 19 Republican senators voted for the infrastructure bill to get something done on needed funding for roads and bridges.  

But when it comes to the $3.5 trillion plan, Democratic leaders have failed to get even one of those 19 Republicans on board. Now, they are faced with the reality that a single Democratic senator could defeat the reconciliation bill or other legislation, giving new meaning to the word leverage. 

Last week, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote a particularly unpleasant and personal critique of Sinema, bemoaning, “Somehow, we have gotten ourselves in a perverse situation where Sinema and Joe Manchin rule the world, and it’s confounding that these two people have this much sway.” 

No, it’s not. It’s called democracy. An equally divided Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker, makes every Democrat in the chamber the deciding vote. 

Sinema and Manchin are independent thinkers who put representing their states over adhering to an increasingly ideological party and policies that may appeal to liberal columnists and activists, but to the rest of the country? Maybe not so much. 

When Manchin had the temerity to suggest that if progressives wanted to pass their liberal policies they needed to elect more liberals, heads exploded across the progressive ecosystem. But he is exactly right. 

The reason the progressive agenda has stalled is because they don’t have the kind of overwhelming majorities and support needed to pass this kind of transformational change.

This begs another question. 

If the public really supports their progressive agenda, why are so many Democrats panicked that this might be their last best chance to remake America? Maybe they should reflect on a quote attributed to Bill Clinton about making progress through compromise:

“If two people have good minds and they’re looking at problems — if they agree all the time, it means one of them is not thinking. If they disagree all the time, it means one of them is not thinking. They’re just allowing their political position to dictate their position on an issue. And I think that’s unhealthy. And the public knows better.”

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.