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What the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship

Joe Biden’s inaugural promise was to bring bipartisanship back to Washington, D.C. But nearly five months into Biden’s term, the status of bipartisanship in his government is fragile — and that puts the Democrats in political peril heading into the 2022 midterms.

Earlier this year, Democrats used the reconciliation process to ram their COVID-19 relief bill through Congress without any Republican support. Now, many Democrats want to do the same with Biden’s massive “infrastructure” bill, the American Families Plan, little of which is devoted to actual infrastructure. Encouragingly though perhaps temporarily, President BidenJoe BidenEx-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out ‘a certain way’ Cheney rips Arizona election audit: ‘It is an effort to subvert democracy’ News leaders deal with the post-Trump era MORE has made an effort to engage Republicans in infrastructure negotiations

Yet, most Democrats — including Biden, to some degree — also support changing or ending the Senate filibuster in order to enact far-reaching progressive reforms like the For the People Act (H.R. 1), a sweeping voting rights bill, without any Republican support.

To be sure, the only Democrat who is truly blocking the party from bypassing bipartisanship entirely in pursuit of a sweeping progressive agenda — a move that would put the party in clear political peril—is Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinMaher goes after Manchin: ‘Most powerful Republican in the Senate’ It’s not just Manchin: No electoral mandate stalls Democrats’ leftist agenda Progressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema MORE (W.Va.). 

While many Democrats feel exasperated over Manchin’s positions — namely his refusal to support ending the filibuster, which has effectively killed the party’s chances of passing any sweeping progressive social reforms — Manchin is actually saving the Democrats from themselves politically.

As David Leonhardt wrote this week for the Washington Post, Manchin is a “pocketbook Democrat.” In West Virginia, Manchin answers to a working-class constituency that is in many ways a microcosm for national working-class voters as a whole. As Leonhardt notes, these voters tend to be culturally conservative and economically progressive. This is the ideological approach Democrats could consider in order to cut their losses among key voting blocs in 2022. 

A post-election analysis conducted by The Third Way, The Collective, and Latino Victory concluded that the Democrats’ focus on progressive causes like “Defund the Police”— taken together with the party’s lack of an economic message — led to losses among Black, Latino and Asian-American Voters in 2020. To that end, the Democrats’ messaging failures enabled the G.O.P. to effectively label all Democrats as “radicals” and “socialists,” which hurt down-ballot candidates in key races.

Thus, a failure to be incremental and bipartisan now — along with a failure to focus on economic priorities — could put Democrats at grave risk of having the worst potential impact of the audit realized in 2020, with a loss of control of government. 

The analysis also found that the party’s assumptions with regard to support for progressive causes among voters of color — along with the lack of differentiation in the party’s messaging and outreach with these groups — weakened Democrats’ position with these voters.

The report cites an unnamed major Democratic funder who aptly summarizes the party’s 2020 missteps: “The primary problem with Defund [the Police] was not Defund, but the lack of an economic message. We became the party of shutting down the economy, the party of wearing masks, the party of taking kids out of school — not the party of solutions and science.”

Biden should be mindful of this as he continues with negotiations on the American Families Plan with a bipartisan group of moderate Senators — including Republican Sens. Bill CassidyBill CassidyBipartisan lawmakers want Biden to take tougher action on Nicaragua The Hill’s 12:30 Report – Presented by Facebook – Sights and sounds from Biden’s UK visit Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (La.), Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt Romney Eugene Goodman to throw out first pitch at Nationals game White House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain On The Money: Consumer prices jumped 5 percent annually in May | GOP senators say bipartisan group has infrastructure deal MORE (Utah), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Bipartisan group reaches infrastructure deal; many questions remain Al Gore lobbied Biden to not scale back climate plans in infrastructure deal White House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain MORE (Ohio), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiWhite House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain Bipartisan Senate group announces infrastructure deal The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Biden mission abroad: reward friends, constrain adversaries MORE (Alaska) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSunday shows preview: Biden foreign policy in focus as Dem tensions boil up back home Why the Democrats need Joe Manchin White House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain MORE (Maine), as well as Democratic Sens. Manchin and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaProgressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema Why the Democrats need Joe Manchin Simmering Democratic tensions show signs of boiling over MORE (Ariz.).

Both politically and substantively, Biden and the Democratic party would benefit from scaling the proposal back and beginning to work more seriously and constructively on a less expensive and expansive infrastructure bill that focuses only on traditional infrastructure. 

Such a proposal would not immediately focus on unrelated priorities like childcare and education — no matter how worthy these priorities may well be. These individual initiatives could then be considered on an issue-by-issue basis in a bi-partisan way — instead of tucked into a $2 trillion plan under the blanket label of “infrastructure,” which is misleading and counter-productive.

Furthermore, if Democrats do pursue social reforms, they should be pursued on a bipartisan basis — unlike the party’s approach to H.R. 1. This week, Manchin and Murkowski will propose the John LewisJohn LewisGarland vows fight against voting limits that violate law Black Republican advocates his case for CBC membership Manchin insists he supports voting rights — we’ll see MORE Voting Rights Act, which is a less sweeping, more targeted and more moderate alternative to H.R. 1.

Though the future of this proposal is uncertain — as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMaher goes after Manchin: ‘Most powerful Republican in the Senate’ Supreme Court confounding its partisan critics Why the Democrats need Joe Manchin MORE (R-Ky.) deemed it “unnecessary”— it is a sensible alternative to H.R. 1, and it would make sense for Democrats to shift their priorities toward working with Republicans on this bipartisan proposal, rather than on H.R. 1, which is dead on arrival in the Senate.

Ultimately, a failure to be incremental and bipartisan now — along with a failure to focus on economic priorities — could put Democrats in the minority and Congress in 2022, and could also make a Republican victory in the 2024 presidential election much more likely.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael BloombergMichael Bloomberg5 former Treasury secretaries back Biden’s plan to increase tax enforcement on wealthy On The Money: Biden ends infrastructure talks with Capito, pivots to bipartisan group | Some US billionaires had years where they paid no taxes: report | IRS to investigate leak Feds looking into release of wealthy Americans’ tax info MORE. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”

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