What If Biden Can’t Deliver for His Party’s Left Wing?

A series of executive actions by President Joe Biden has pulled U.S. policy to the left on a range of issues including fracking, abortion and transgender athletes. Progressives should savor the moment, because it could well represent a peak in their efforts to change the country.

Biden came into office with a very progressive platform. But it is entirely possible, even likely, that he won’t deliver on much of it. His immigration proposal is for show, not an attempt to get something through Congress. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin’s opposition means he may not have 51 votes for a $15 minimum wage, let alone the 60 that Senate rules probably require. Democrats don’t have nearly enough votes to create new states, block voter-identification laws or increase gun regulation. Legislation on some of those issues would struggle even to pass the House.

Other items on the liberal wish list that are vanishingly unlikely to happen include passage of the Equality Act, a new public option for health care and an end to the Hyde Amendment that restricts Medicaid funding for abortion. Forget about packing the Supreme Court.

That doesn’t mean Congress will leave Biden empty-handed. Covid-relief legislation is likely to pass, albeit with a lower price tag and smaller checks for households than Biden wants. Higher taxes on corporations and capital gains look doable. Biden will get judges confirmed. If Covid and the economy cooperate, Biden’s polls may hold up. The tight margins in Congress may keep Democrats from being able to overreach and thus prevent a backlash.

Still, it’s going to be a letdown for many on the left. The Democrats have the White House, the Senate and the House for the first time in 11 years. Much of their public conversation is based on the idea that they settled for too little last time around.

But they are in much worse shape than they were in 2009, and they have not internalized it. Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 was a bigger blowout in the popular vote and the Electoral College. He was elected alongside much larger Democratic majorities in Congress than the ones Biden has today. (Democrats gained seats in the House of Representatives in 2008, and lost seats in 2020.) Obama’s early polls were higher than Biden’s.

There’s also the way Biden ran his campaign. Running as not-Donald-Trump maximized his ability to win the election but made it harder to claim a mandate on policy.

What are the chances that the left wing of the party keeps all of that in mind and cuts Biden and other Democratic leaders some slack? Don’t count on it: There’s already talk of primary challenges against moderate Democratic senators from progressives who have somehow gotten the impression that they can get Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez elected in West Virginia.

The Democratic coalition will come under more stress the closer we get to the midterm elections, when the party in the White House typically loses ground in Congress. That historical pattern will make Democrats more cautious in places that went for Trump in 2020. But it will make progressives more impatient, since it means this Congress could be their last chance for a while to achieve their priorities.

Republicans’ infighting over impeachment and the crazy behavior of some of their backbenchers have diverted attention from what a difficult year the Democrats have in store. Unless Republicans defy history by losing seats next year — and admittedly they are hard at work on that — progressives are going to find that right now is as good as it gets.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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