In Glasgow, President Joe Biden promised to invest in climate change, but he is still missing the unanimous support of his party.
Fans of Charles Schulz’ classic comic strip will be familiar with this routine: Lucy promises to hold the football and Charlie Brown runs up to kick it; at the last second, she pulls the ball away, and poor Charlie Brown ends up on his back after a few spins in the air.
This is what many Democrats fear after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin reiterated that he intended to withhold his vote for the climate change and social safety net bill that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is counting on to seal the political legacy of President Joe Biden and his fragile majority in Congress.
But the progressives had a trick up their sleeve. After the Senate approved a bipartisan physical infrastructure bill that would distribute largesse to every corner of the country, progressives in the House of Representatives promised to approve it as it was, but only if all Senate Democrats approved the social infrastructure bill.
That is what forced stubborn Senate Democrats just before Biden left for Europe to negotiate a tentative agreement totaling $1.75 trillion in spending over 10 years that would include major advances in early childhood programs, child care, home care, health insurance premium cuts, and climate change, among other things. It was ambitious, but progressive Democrats went into this negotiation with an agenda three times as ambitious.
Having secured all these concessions in exchange for his support in principle for the project, Manchin repeated again today that he needed time to further assess the impacts of the social infrastructure bill, but insisted that progressives stop their “childishness” and allow the physical infrastructure bill to pass immediately. In this classic game of chicken, the advantage clearly belongs to the moderate Democrats, who are the last line of defense for the majority of their party. Despite the merits of the programs promoted by the progressive wing, adopting a highly interventionist agenda makes life difficult for representatives and senators who, like Manchin in West Virginia, must deal with a relatively conservative electorate.
Progressive Democrats could all be excused for being impatient with their centrist colleagues, but it is in the centrist states and districts that the future of the party will be played out. Politicians like Manchin who want to slow the progressives down will have the final say.
A crucial part of this tug-of-war will play out tomorrow in the gubernatorial election in the swing state of Virginia, where the polls show the two leading candidates neck and neck. If Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe does not win, it is a virtual certainty that the fragile support from the moderates for the social and environmental infrastructure project will collapse.* A narrow victory for the Democratic candidate will give President Biden a better chance of winning back a more modest version of the project, but there are no guarantees.
American institutions are heavily biased in favor of the status quo. Like almost every major progressive reform in the past, President Biden’s social and environmental agenda faces a strong undertow. By giving up on delaying passage of the physical infrastructure plan, progressive Democrats have ceded the initiative to the moderate wing of the party. They still have a vested interest in helping Biden avoid losing face, but if the president’s approval ratings do not improve, centrists in his party will have even less incentive to take political risks on his behalf.
Passage of an even more watered-down version of Biden’s social and environmental plan remains possibie, but it is equally possible that when Biden takes off for one last chance to make progress on social and environmental issues, the moderate wing of his party will pull back the proverbial ball. That would be a big step backward in the fight against climate change and for American families. For America’s democracy, given the alternative that Republicans seem destined to offer in 2024, such a failure for the Biden presidency would be a catastrophe.
*Editor’s Note: Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin defeated Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe on Nov. 2.