Democrats vs. Democrats.

It's a standoff. But will it last?
Isaac Saul Aug 24, 2021
️I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 13 minutes.

Democrats are in a standoff. Plus, a question about America’s “assimilative capacity.”

New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who is in a standoff with the leader of his own party. Photo: New Jersey National Guard

Correction.

Yesterday, in quick hit #2, I wrote that “The FDA has granted full approval to the Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines.” In fact, the FDA has only granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine. I had read an aggregated story on the Pfizer approval that also mentioned Johnson & Johnson and Moderna approval coming shortly, and caught the mistake in the web version but did not correct it in the newsletter round-up. I very much regret the error on a story that is so consequential.

This is the 42nd Tangle correction in its 107-week existence and the first since August 11. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize my transparency with readers.


Quick hits.

  1. Kathy Hochul was sworn in as governor of New York last night after Andrew Cuomo resigned. (The story)
  2. Portland streets have once again descended into violence as Proud Boys and Antifa activists fight with tear gas and explosive devices. (The fighting)
  3. On Monday, CIA Director William Burns held a secret meeting in Kabul with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar. (The details)
  4. The report on the controversial election audit in Arizona has been delayed after a Cyber Ninjas chief executive and several colleagues tested positive for Covid-19. (The holdup)
  5. A three-judge panel in North Carolina has ruled that people on parole or probation in the state should be allowed to vote, paving the way for more than 55,000 felony offenders to register. (The ruling)

What D.C. is talking about.

Democratic infighting. The House of Representatives is back from recess this week, and they’re trying to take the next steps on President Biden’s massive (hard and human) infrastructure plans.

Reminder: Democrats are trying to pass two pieces of legislation simultaneously: the $1.5 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in the Senate, and a $3.5 trillion package that includes everything from free community college to major immigration reform.

In order to pass the $3.5 trillion of legislation, though, Democrats first need to pass something called a budget resolution — which would then allow them to pass the package with just 50 votes in the Senate (meaning they won’t need any Republican support). But moderate Democrats in the House are refusing to vote on the budget resolution unless they vote and pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill first. These moderate Democrats have been saying that for weeks, but President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t exactly take their threats seriously. Now, there’s a bit of a standoff.

The folks at Punchbowl News, a D.C. insider Congressional news outlet, put it simply:

“Progressives want to delay a final vote on the Senate infrastructure bill because they think the moderates will vote against social spending once they get ‘hard' infrastructure passed. The moderates want infrastructure first because they want it signed into law before getting into what will be difficult negotiations over the massive $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. Both are legitimate and thoughtful calculations made by (mostly) savvy pols.”

The two factions that have emerged are progressive Democrats with President Biden and Speaker Pelosi, facing off with a group of nine House Democrats — enough to thwart any bill’s passage in the 220-212 House of Representatives — Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux (GA), Ed Case (HI), Jim Costa (CA), Henry Cuellar (TX), Jared Golden (ME), Vicente Gonzalez (TX), Josh Gottheimer (NJ), Kurt Schrader (OR) and Filemon Vela (TX).

While it looks as if this is just a momentary detour, the emerging fractures in the Democratic party over how to handle these two pieces of legislation — far-reaching bills that will touch nearly every facet of American life — have set off some vigorous debate.

Below, we’ll take a look at reactions from the right and left, then my take.


What the right is saying.

The right hopes the moderates hold the line and refuse to move forward on the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill until hard infrastructure is passed.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said the whole thing is Kabuki theater.

“This is mainly about process, not substance,” they wrote. “The nine Democratic holdouts want to vote on infrastructure now, but tomorrow they’re prepared to roll over for $3.5 trillion in spending and new entitlements, which is what really matters… The problem for the swing-district Democrats—please don’t call them moderates—is that Mrs. Pelosi likes it when they win competitive seats to build her a majority, but once they get to D.C. she expects them to toe the progressive party line. This year that dynamic is even worse, because she’s playing for her legacy.

“What’s missing is any argument against spending $1 trillion and then $3.5 trillion, or the other way around,” the board said. “Mr. Sanders’s budget calls for enormous tax increases, universal pre-K, free community college, a lower Medicare eligibility age, and much, much more. His strategy is to pass temporary programs that will never be allowed to lapse, a sly way of permanently changing the average American’s relationship to the state. The true cost over 10 years is closer to $5 trillion, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Where are swing-district Democrats objecting to the substance? They might get a process change, or another minor victory, but the House probably will still pass Mr. Sanders’s budget outline. If the centrists vote for that, they’ll be swept out to sea in 2022, not that Mrs. Pelosi cares. Her narrow majority gives them real leverage. History suggests they won’t use it for anything that matters.”

The New York Post editorial board called on moderate Democrats to “stand your ground.”

“They’re right to stand up to Pelosi. Not only is a progressive, partisan spending spree bad for a recovering economy; voting for it, whenever it comes up, means political suicide in swing districts come next year’s midterms,” the board said. “But she doesn’t have the numbers for it if even half the nine moderates stand their ground, since Dems have a tiny 220-212 majority… Another reason for moderates to be wary: President Joe Biden’s plummeting approval ratings, down 10 points in a month — and not just because of his Afghanistan debacle. The public is souring on a prez whose words defy reality across the board, from the economy to border security. His rosy predictions of prosperity from his over-the-top spending plan deserve no more trust than his claims about having planned for all Afghan contingencies.”

In The Washington Times, Brooke L. Rollins said Biden inherited a blueprint for a successful economy but is ignoring it: “low taxes, restrained regulation and targeted federal government spending.”

“In the three years before the pandemic, the United States set its economic foundation firmly in these three pillars. The numbers are undeniable,” Rollins said. “Inequality fell by multiple measures while 6.6 million Americans were lifted from poverty. Poverty rates for African Americans and Hispanic Americans reached record lows. The unemployment rate dropped to a historic 3.5 percent overall, including the highest employment rates in 50 years for women, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and blue-collar workers with no more than a high school diploma. At the end of 2019, a whopping three-quarters of those finding employment were joining the labor force from the sidelines. Critically, after years of stagnant wages, real wages increased 10 percent for blue-collar and middle-class workers. And despite having remained flat in the previous 15 years, real median income increased an incredible $6,000 between 2016 and 2019.

“The pandemic dealt a blow to the American economy. It merited a targeted government response, but it did not change the fundamental importance of the economic principles that drive national flourishing,” Rollins wrote. “Yet, this latest reconciliation push threatens to do just that. From job-killing tax increases to the Green New Deal programs that will destroy American energy independence and raise energy prices for American families and small businesses, to the creation of new social welfare programs and spending that will exacerbate inflation and further erode the value of the working American’s salary, to mass amnesty, this bill is guaranteed to be a fundamental threat to the American dream.”


What the left is saying.

The left is mostly behind Pelosi and Biden, hoping they will find a way to pass both bills simultaneously rather than see both fail.

The Washington Post editorial board said this could either be a “historic legislative push that could reshape the safety net and combat climate change” or “a massive Democratic failure that would harm the nation and amount to an epic political self-own.”

“Centrists’ energy would be far better spent negotiating the reconciliation package than on insisting that progressives unilaterally disarm,” the board said. “There is much to negotiate. The reconciliation bill’s advertised $3.5 trillion price tag is really more like $5 trillion to $5.5 trillion once one strips away the gimmicks, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Combined with the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, the whole program could add $4.3 trillion in new debt over the next decade. Centrists should force a debate on the cost, streamlining new proposed programs, insisting on more substantial pay-fors, or both.

“This should lead to a debate about priorities,” the board added. “The reconciliation bill promises to slash drastically child poverty through an enhanced child tax credit, cut the ranks of the working poor with a boosted earned-income tax credit, enshrine in law an ambitious federal climate policy and promote many other worthy reforms. But is pumping up Medicare, including for many wealthy seniors, more important than shoring up Obamacare or ensuring that low-income people caught in Medicaid’s coverage gap have basic health-care access? Does the nation need free community college when it can instead enhance Pell Grants for the neediest? The reconciliation bill’s answer to these questions is: Do it all. And to pay for it, the reconciliation bill’s architects suggest some significant new revenue sources, such as higher corporate taxes, and some squishy pay-fors, such as projected economic growth.”

In Slate, Jim Newell asked who you’d bet on: New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer or Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden?

“When the Problem Solvers tried to force concessions from Pelosi in exchange for speaker votes, though, she rolled them,” he wrote. “And even though some of Gottheimer’s crew got antsy about the first Trump impeachment, they ultimately almost unanimously went along with it. This is Democratic moderates’ reputation within the Capitol: They’ll make a lot of noise, but won’t go to the mattresses because they understand, in all likelihood, that they’ll lose… So what, then, is Gottheimer and the gang’s plan here? If they back down, they’ll never be taken seriously as a real threat again. If they don’t back down, many of them will find themselves in a deeply uncomfortable position when they head home: Even in a moderate district, you can’t afford to block your president’s agenda and expect your base to be pleased.”

In The Washington Post, the nine Democratic colleagues penned a joint opinion piece and made their case for doing hard infrastructure first.

“The challenge we face right now is that there is a standoff with some of our colleagues who have decided to hold the infrastructure bill hostage for months, or kill it altogether, if they don’t get what they want in the next bill — a largely undefined $3.5 trillion reconciliation package,” they wrote. “While we have concerns about the level of spending and potential revenue raisers, we are open to immediate consideration of that package. But we are firmly opposed to holding the president’s infrastructure legislation hostage to reconciliation, risking its passage and the bipartisan support behind it.

“Across this country, far too many communities are struggling with crumbling roads and structurally unsound bridges, outrageous congestion, lead-coated pipes and no broadband access,” they added. “You don’t hold up a major priority of the country, and millions of jobs, as some form of leverage. The infrastructure bill is not a political football… This infrastructure bill was crafted the way most of us imagine legislation should be developed: with a bipartisan group of legislators in the House and Senate working together, negotiating and finding common ground. That’s what governing is about, and America is thirsty for it, especially after the past four years. The infrastructure bill has broad support — by both the Chamber of Commerce and organized labor, including the AFL-CIO and local building trades. Now, we are urging House leadership and the president to move this trillion-dollar, once-in-a-century measure through the House quickly, sign the bill, and get shovels in the ground and people to work.”


My take.

I write a newsletter built on a foundational principle that Americans tend to misunderstand each other and we’d all benefit from hearing more from people with whom we disagree. So you can imagine that I’m partial to a group that includes members of the “The Problem Solvers Caucus” and emphasizes bipartisanship and negotiation, even if I myself am not interested in convincing readers (or intending to be) more moderate.

But I still have no idea what the heck this group of Democrats is doing.

First, they’re going to get rolled. I’ve been writing this newsletter from Monday afternoon into Tuesday morning, so by the time you read this they may have already gotten rolled. Nine House Democrats — even with the extraordinary leverage they have — are not going to outmaneuver the president, the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi. At the very best they may get a soft commitment to a specific date on when to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Regardless of how you feel about Pelosi, she will go down as one of the shrewdest political operators of all time (and trust me when I tell you that her most vehement political opponents say the same thing).

Second, I just don’t follow the logic. In their own telling, they are essentially arguing that they want “shovels in the ground” as soon as possible. But the easiest way to do that would be by not delaying the inevitable and moving to debate the $3.5 trillion bill. All they are doing now is playing a game of cat and mouse that is going to end in one of two ways: the failure of both bills after many months of this standoff, or both bills passing, but on a much-delayed timeline. I can’t see any world — none — in which the “hard” infrastructure bill becomes law first, and then the reconciliation bill gets debated for months on end. Pelosi and Biden are each betting their political legacies on running these bills concurrently, and it’s clear they’re going to follow through. Surely these Democrats know this.

The best explanation I have is that they simply want to be able to tell their swing district constituents that they tried to slow roll the progressive Democrats but couldn't, and then will campaign on the idea they need more moderate Democrats in the House. That may work as a campaign strategy, but it seems to me an odd time to make this stand. In a few months, after the Senate works through the $3.5 trillion package, House Democrats will be needed to convert that bill into law. There will be plenty of opportunity then to use their considerable leverage for concessions or changes to the final bill.

Now, though, the most plausible outcome seems to be that they’ll make their threats, fold, and likely leave the progressives, Pelosi and Biden with the sense that’s what they’ll do next time, too. So it’s hard to see how this is a winning strategy.


Your questions, answered.

Q: You quoted The National Review Editors as they said “It is also true, on the other hand, that there is a limit to any Western country’s assimilative capacity.” Do you think this argument has much merit? The United States has always had a proud history of being a “melting pot” and while I understand more conservative politicians and people may have more insular beliefs or tendencies, it seems slightly... anti-American to say that we don't want people to come here because they come from a different culture.

— Madeline, Seattle, Washington

Tangle: It’s a really big question. And like so many things covered in this newsletter, I think the answer is far more grey than black or white. But the general sentiment that we have a limit on our “assimilative capacity” is something that I strongly disagree with.

For starters, I think the world we’re living in today — thanks to the internet, travel, advancements in education and language, etc. — is more interconnected than at any time before. Which, in a lot of ways, makes “assimilation,” or the mixing of cultures, something that comes with much less friction. So, for instance, comparing the outcome of 50,000 Afghan refugees immigrating to the U.S. in the 1950s to what’s happening now is actually a pretty silly exercise, because the world is so vastly different now, and the borders between us have faded in such a noticeable way (still, that hasn’t stopped comparisons of past migration waves to current ones).

I also think it’s important to acknowledge that human beings are pack animals. It is, as far as I know, still part of our innate code to operate in clans, to push away people who don’t look or sound like us and gravitate toward people with shared history and upbringing. This means we can’t pretend the melting pot doesn’t often come with tension. For instance, there are obviously communities that have gone from predominantly white to majority Hispanic in a matter of a decade, and that has strained communities, causing political battles and hatred. This podcast about the changes in a chicken farming plant in Albertville, Alabama, is a fascinating look at that kind of experience.

But, again, it’s very complex. Think of some of the greatest friction in the world right now that we’ve covered in Tangle: Afghans vs. the Taliban. Han Chinese vs. the Uighurs. Trump voters vs. Republican moderates. Progressives vs. Democratic establishment. Zionist Jews vs. progressive Jews. To me, we seem just as likely to have these divisions with people who are very similar but slightly different as we are with people who seem extremely “other.” The assumption that an Afghan refugee and a Republican voter from Alabama are going to clash and threaten our “assimilative capacity” (which is what I think the National Review editors are implying) is kind of funny if you pause and look around for one second to see who is actually having it out with each other.

So, does the West have an assimilative capacity? I’m not even sure what that means. What’s a sign that we’ve hit our capacity? Civil war? Xenophobia? The political battles of the last few years over the border? Maybe it’s a matter of numbers? In which case, there is probably some number of refugees or immigrants that the social safety net or economy can manage in their first few years after immigrating (in America, for instance, refugees have been shown to pay back what they use in tax dollars after only eight years). But are we there yet? Are we approaching that number? I really, truly don’t see it.

Not only is our country becoming more ethnically diverse every year as our economy grows and becomes more connected to other nations, we’re simultaneously becoming less racist (even if we’re fighting about race more). As I said yesterday: America is not Germany. It’s America. We are bad at a lot of things and good at a lot of things, and one of the things we’re very good at is fostering cohesiveness and success among immigrants and refugees. I see very few signs that we’re moving in any direction other than expanding our “assimilative capacity” and, even in the National Review editors’ piece, I see very little in the way of evidence to back up their claim that such a thing even exists.


A story that matters.

Farm incomes have been hit hard over the last two years, and this year’s summer droughts are making it even worse. Extreme heat is baking most of the U.S., and “North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska all contain areas of extreme drought,” according to the Wall Street Journal. That has sent the price of cash crops soaring, including those for corn and wheat. This year, 63 percent of the U.S. spring wheat crop is in poor or very poor condition, versus 6 percent at this time last year. Now, the Agriculture Department is expecting inventories to dwindle and bracing for more price increases. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)


Numbers.

  • 69%. The percentage of American adults who say they’ve already been vaccinated, according to a new NBC poll.
  • 13%. The percentage of American adults who say they won’t get vaccinated under any circumstances, according to a new NBC poll.
  • 76%. The percentage of Black adults who say they’ve already been vaccinated, according to a new NBC poll.
  • 71%. The percentage of Latino adults who say they’ve already been vaccinated, according to a new NBC poll.
  • 66%. The percentage of White adults who say they’ve already been vaccinated, according to a new NBC poll.
  • 52%. The percentage of rural residents who say they’ve already been vaccinated, according to a new NBC poll.
  • 79%. The percentage of urban residents who say they’ve already been vaccinated, according to a new NBC poll.

Don’t forget.

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Have a nice day.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced yesterday that the company is planning to house as many as 20,000 Afghan refugees around the world free of charge. The refugees will be put up in housing listed on Airbnb’s platforms and the cost will be covered by the company. Chesky did not disclose how much he plans to spend on the commitment or how long the refugees will be housed for, but with some 48,000 people evacuated in the last few days alone, every little bit will help. (The story)

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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