ANALYSIS — The trouble with losing is it often breeds more losing. Democrats in Washington are in the middle of an end-of-year skid that will likely spill into a new year during which their House and Senate majorities are in severe jeopardy.
“I don’t believe losing ever helps. It puts seeds of doubt in the minds of players. I’d rather be good than mad,” NFL Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson once said.
Congressional and White House Democrats are plenty mad after one of their own, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, on Sunday drove a dagger into President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” social spending proposal, announcing his opposition on “Fox News Sunday.”
But good? The blue side has spent months fighting each other even more than Republicans — who, somehow, helped secure a defense policy bill recently that excluded many Democratic-preferred provisions. There also was the Supreme Court signaling it will allow states to curb access to abortions.
And there is no end to the losing in sight.
Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is certainly mad.
“Well, I think he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do to the people of West Virginia, to tell him why he doesn’t have the guts to take on the drug companies to lower the cost of prescription drugs,” he told CNN after Manchin announced he will not support the BBB plan.
“West Virginia is one of the poorest states in this country. You got elderly people and disabled people who would like to stay at home,” a clearly agitated Sanders roared. “He’s going to have to tell the people of West Virginia why he doesn’t want to expand Medicare to cover dental hearing and eyeglasses. … I’ve been to West Virginia a number of times, and it’s a great state, beautiful people, but it is a state that is struggling.”
There was a fitting symbolism that the West Virginia moderate dropped his bomb on the right-leaning network’s flagship political show and the self-described Democratic socialist gave his angry rebuttal on a network that has been highly critical of the conservative movement.
“The lesson President Biden should learn from this dire situation is when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon, adding that Biden needs to do two things.
“First, he needs to be more aggressive calling out opponents of his efforts to fight the pandemic and to fix the economy,” Bannon said. “Next, target the anti-vaxxers. A successful fight against COVID would do wonders for the economy.”
A major problem for Democrats is that anger is not a strategy. And it cannot overcome the dynamics of a 50-50 Senate split. In fact, the madder publicly they get with Manchin, the more it could drive him to oppose other measures they might bring to the floor next year.
That did not, however, prevent the White House from firing back at Manchin with plenty of anger.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called Manchin’s Sunday bombshell “at odds with his discussions this week with the president, with White House staff and with his own public utterances.” The top Biden spokeswoman charged that Manchin’s Fox comments “represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the president and the senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.”
“Just as Senator Manchin reversed his position on Build Back Better this morning, we will continue to press him to see if he will reverse his position yet again, to honor his prior commitments and be true to his word,” Psaki added.
‘Did not engage’
That is about as tough as this White House has gotten with any member, Democrat or Republican, since taking office in January. The sharp elbows seemed welcome by many Democrats. But amid losing streaks, teams and fans need to hear from the head coach about their plan for notching a few wins, for ending the collective misery.
Biden had his top spokeswoman deliver a takedown of Manchin. But Psaki’s scorched-earth statement included no blueprint to reverse the slide. Twenty four hours after Manchin shivved the spending package, Biden returned to the White House via Marine One after a weekend at home in Delaware.
Biden stepped off the executive chopper with reporters and television cameras ready to document his new plan. But if he has one, his Democratic troops are still waiting to hear from their head coach.
“A few Manchin-related questions were shouted over the helicopter’s whine,” a print pool reporter wrote in a dispatch from a chilly 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “The President, walking deliberately towards the Oval, did not engage.”
The Democrats’ penchant for wrestling defeat from the jaws of victory only feeds what polls show is a frustration with their collective performance. It also helps Republicans gearing up to portray them as incompetent in next year’s midterm elections — and Donald Trump as he teases another presidential run in 2024.
“We know that the party base is pretty much in lockstep with Trump, and now the Trumpiest candidates are making their presence and candidacies very well known,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in North Carolina.
“You’ve got two of the three legs of a modern political party — the voters and the party activists — under the sway of Trump,” he added. “Now, it’s just a matter of time before the third leg, the party in government — the elected officials — truly give in to the Trump dominance.”
In fact, it already has. The GOP caucuses in both chambers listened to Trump’s frequent email statements slamming the Democratic wish list. They stuck together in opposition to the Biden social spending package, leaving its fate up to Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
Biden and top Democrats do have some things about which to focus their public messaging. One is the number of judges they have put on federal benches, even outpacing Trump’s first-year push to seat conservative judges. But Democrats never have effectively used the courts in their public relations efforts, and there is little evidence that is going to change heading into the 2022 midterms.
‘Flex his muscles’
Bannon suggests Biden use his pen and executive powers aggressively in the new year to end the losing skid.
“He needs to flex his muscle with executive orders. Start with student loans,” he said. “Reductions or cancellations of student debt would stimulate the economy and energize a key part of the Democratic base: millennials. Challenge the federal courts to stop him and take on the fight.” But on student debt relief, the White House has been firm that payments must resume Feb. 1.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York also has an idea, indicating in a Sunday statement that he plans to bring the “Build Back Better” package to the floor in early January. He and Biden also could, assuming that fails, bust up the package into smaller bites — or, yet again, give it a rewrite. But one Democratic strategist has doubts about the latter.
“All I am saying to the folks eager to get on this bandwagon is be careful. … The problem — to be clear — is that the president and house and senate dem leaders failed to make the tough decisions before,” James Manley, a former spokesman for then-Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, tweeted Sunday. “So what is going to change? I honestly don’t know.”
Pivot to voting rights legislation amid a list of GOP laws Democrats say would make it harder for minorities to vote or put conservatives in key local and state elections positions? Without some change to the Senate’s debate rules, a GOP filibuster will keep that in limbo forever, and not every Democrat is on board with that.
Given Biden’s again-sagging polls numbers and a perception he and congressional Democrats are falling short of their 2020 campaign promise of restoring competence to Washington, they will need to find a few answers under the tree this holiday season.