Steven V. Roberts: Two words for Democrats

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 8, 2021

The Democrats are in a real mess. Moderates and liberals are sniping at each other with the same animosity they usually aim at Republicans.

A breaking point came after liberals torpedoed a House vote on a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, vowing to block its passage until Congress approves a much larger $3.5 trillion package of expensive progressive priorities such as free community college and expanded Medicare benefits.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, a leading moderate, called it “a sad day for our nation.” Another centrist, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, accused liberals of putting “civility and bipartisan governing at risk.”

In June, Politico ran a headline that said, “The left hates Joe Manchin,” the West Virginia Democrat who is holding up that liberal spending package in the Senate. One lefty even called Manchin “the new Mitch McConnell,” a damning reference to the obdurate Republican leader who has throttled Democratic ambitions for years.

“Everybody’s frustrated,” observed President Biden after a fruitless effort to bring Democrats together. “It’s a part of being in government, being frustrated.”

There are two words, however, that could still propel the Democrats out of their fratricidal stalemate and toward a compromise. The first is “minority.” The second is “Trump.”

No matter how much they distrust or dislike each other, every Democrat in Congress has a core common interest: to preserve their narrow majorities in next year’s elections. The odds are heavily against them; the president’s party almost always loses seats in midterm balloting. But to have any chance at all, Democrats must unify behind a legislative program that enables them to go to voters next year and say: See, we kept our promises. We justified your confidence.

So the question becomes: What legislative package would best serve the Democrats politically? It has to accomplish two goals that are, to some extent, in tension: deliver real benefits to working families, while not swinging so far left that supporting it endangers Democrats in tightly contested districts.

Liberals have to accept an unpalatable but undeniable truth: Democrats cannot preserve their majorities without moderates like Manchin in the Senate and Murphy and Gottheimer in the House. The road to victory for Democrats does NOT run through Brooklyn and Berkeley. And unless liberals recognize that reality and help protect their more pragmatic colleagues in swing suburban districts, they will doom their chances of maintaining a majority.

Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, another centrist Democrat, told The Washington Post that “his progressive colleagues need to understand the only reason they have a majority with which to legislate is because of hard-fought victories moderates have scored in the country’s most competitive congressional districts, and so their concerns should not be dismissed.”

“I think that progressives don’t trust moderates, and I keep telling the progressives, ‘Hey, how do we get to a majority?’” Cuellar said. “It’s the moderate swing areas that people like myself have that they need to worry about.”

Then there is the Trump factor. Beyond 2022 looms 2024, and the former president is clearly preparing to run again, traveling to campaign-style rallies and raising tons of money from his devoted base. Of course, it could all be a bluff, a ploy to stroke his ego and stuff his bank account. And plenty of Republicans, at least in private, worry that he would lose again. His favorable rating stands at a paltry 42% in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, with his negatives soaring to 52.3%.

“His toxic brand continues to turn off voters in the suburbs, according to strategists in battleground states,” the Post reports. “Many of the party’s top donors have privately told strategists and party leaders they want a nominee other than Trump.”

And yet, Trump has been badly underestimated before. And every Democrat shares — or should share — the fear expressed by former Trump press secretary Stephanie Grisham. She said of her old boss on ABC: “I am terrified of him running in 2024. I don’t think he is fit for the job. I think that he is erratic. I think that he can be delusional. I think that he is a narcissist and cares about himself first and foremost. And I do not want him to be our president again.”

If Democrats want to hold the majority in Congress while avoiding the nightmare Grisham describes, they have only one option: Bury their antagonisms and fashion a compromise that their candidates can defend in swing states and districts, both next year and in 2024.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Contact him at