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“We Can't Govern!”

Osita Nwanevu
7 min read
“We Can't Govern!”

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


I'm taking a break for the holidays, so there'll be one more post next week before the very end of the year. It'll be a Year in Review kind of thing as well as a Mail Time post, so send in any questions you might want answered to


Don’t really have too much to say about Manchin and BBB, honestly. One of the reasons I’ve taken a step back from writing frequently on the news cycle is that I’d gotten tired of repeating myself to no purpose. Everyone reading this newsletter knows the score about the situation in Washington; it should be obvious to the honest that progressives were right to assume their leverage would evaporate once the BIF passed. (Once again, the press’ characterizations of the party’s left wing have been proven wrong ⁠— the Freedom Caucus this is not.) It’s hard to say what shape BBB would have taken if they’d stuck to their guns. But deferring to leadership and trading a must-pass objective away for nothing hasn’t helped them strategically.

Some have argued that Manchin would have just tanked both bills if BIF had been retained as a hostage. I really doubt this. It was uncontroversial; it enjoyed wide support both substantively and as a symbol of Congress’ capacity to do things on a bipartisan basis. Manchin wants to be seen as a thorn in the party’s side, but he didn’t want to be seen as a roadblock to roads and bridges. It’s not obvious to me that he actually wants to be seen as the grim reaper of Biden’s entire agenda either, which is why I think it’s still likely that a smaller reconciliation package passes at some point between now and November ⁠— especially since Manchin’s publicly offered parameters for the kind of bill he’d be willing to support.

I’ll have more to say about Biden’s first year as a whole next month, but for what it’s worth, my assessment of his time in office so far didn’t really change substantially over the course of the weekend. It matters that we got a very large stimulus through. It matters that we left Afghanistan. It matters that Biden, even granted the shift now to fretting about inflation, hasn’t convened a grand commission to figure out what programs we can gut to address the debt. All of these things should place him ahead of Obama in any reasonable progressive’s estimation. But that’s saying extremely little substantively speaking ⁠— this has still been a bad and dishonest presidency built upon denial. The Democratic Party is simply incapable of governing in the manner it promises to voters and constituents in elections. Some believe it’s because they don’t really want to; others believe it’s because political and institutional realities are barriers to real change. I happen to believe both are right, but it doesn’t really matter. Any way you slice it, the Democratic Party is nearly finished as an agent in federal policymaking. Once whatever BBB winds up becoming passes ⁠— assuming something does ⁠— it will probably be the last major Democratic legislation for a very long time.

A lot of the strategic debates we’ve had this year amount to magical thinking in avoidance of that reality ⁠— the notion, for instance, that Democrats might have a better shot in November if they start policing stand-up comedy routines can only really be understood as a coping mechanism. So too is “popularism” ⁠— if Bill Clinton couldn’t pull off moderate signalling to swing voters well enough to keep Congress in 1994, why should anyone assume Democrats could do a better job of it now? The midterms are still a political lifetime away, of course. But given the confluence of factors already working against the party, it would be foolish to bet on them beating the odds.

How ready is the party for a strategic shift ⁠— towards “popularism” or anything else ⁠— anyhow? Politico just ran a pair of fairly insidery articles that work well as reminders about the nature of the animal we’re dealing with. One is about the push to rework the presidential primary calendar ⁠— a system that was already democratically indefensible even before last year’s disastrous Iowa caucuses. Now it appears that all the noise afterwards about dethroning the lead states was all for naught. “Interviews with more than two dozen Democratic National Committee members, state party chairs and strategists laid bare widespread desire to avoid a divisive, intraparty dispute in 2022,” Politico’s David Siders and Alex Thompson wrote, “and skepticism that any change enacted after the midterm elections could be done in time for the next presidential campaign.”

The party’s waning appetite for a calendar change is reflective of its defensive posture heading into the midterm election year. DNC members are expected as early as next month to begin discussing the 2024 order of states. But many Democratic officials are fearful of doing anything more to project a disunified front as they scramble to maintain their Senate majority and limit losses in the House. Without a strong push from the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment for this story, many Democrats think sheer inertia will keep things as they are.
[...] Iowa and New Hampshire, meanwhile, are keeping their heads down. At the South Carolina meetings last week, Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, dismissed a question about the primary order, saying, “Why would I want to stir that pot?” The New Hampshire secretary of state, Bill Gardner, said simply, “Our tradition will continue.”
“Status quo is good for us,” said Jeff Link, a longtime Democratic consultant based in Iowa. “There have been threats of varying degrees since the ‘80s, and usually what happens is right after a caucus there’s a lot of energy to do something different, and then the reality sets in that then you have to get 49 states to agree on what the alternative is, and that becomes difficult, and it’s harder to change it than it is to leave it as it is.”

The second piece is about the Congressional Black Caucus’ ongoing advocacy for policies that would upend racial inequality in America and deliver real material change to struggling African-Americans —things like promoting diversity at top lobbying firms. “The goal, ultimately, is not just to increase Black representation at major lobbying shops but to ensure that Black lobbyists get elevated to the top ranks,” Politico’s Hailey Fuchs and Laura Barrón-López wrote.  “Without that, it can make it harder for those lobbyists to move on to high-ranking positions elsewhere and weakens pay equity, said a source familiar with CBC dynamics.”

The increasing power and sheer size of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Democratic Party makes it a formidable political force on and off the Hill. The caucus boasts more than 50 members and a number of committee chairs, along with the Democratic Party’s majority whip, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina (also a top Biden ally), and the House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries of New York. For K Street, hiring lobbyists with connections to members of the caucus has become an increasingly integral part of a firms’ competitive strategy.
[...] A “smart company” would find out who has the best relationship with powerful members, said Thompson. He added that it would be “stupid” for corporate interests not to maximize their chances of finding a friendly audience with those members by bringing someone to the table with whom the lawmakers could identify.
Ultimately, however, operatives trying to change the racial balance on K Street say that a more holistic approach is needed. To staff K Street with more diverse lobbyists, there needs to be a more diverse applicant pool making its way through the pipeline from Capitol Hill and the executive branch — where many lobbyists get their start.

While Manchin and Sinema are highly visible, concrete obstacles to the passage of progressive legislation, it can’t really be denied at this stage that the party as a whole is a problem ⁠— as I’ve said before, the Democrats are best understood as a kind of professional organization for lazy, risk-averse center and center-left politicos that passes generally mediocre to poor federal policy on the side.

Matt Yglesias has a post up about why he thinks no one’s really serious about the fight to “save American democracy” that’s become a standard feature of Democratic rhetoric. Part of his argument is that he believes progressives would have rejected a sensible hypothetical deal from Manchin ⁠— essentially all of the desired democracy reforms including the admission of DC, Puerto Rico, and the territories as states in exchange for appointing two or three Never Trumpers to the cabinet and punting on issues like climate and immigration until after the midterms. This strikes me as obviously wrong. Manchin opposes the addition of new states in the first place because he knows it might rubber stamp a progressive policy agenda; activists and advocacy groups would take up to 12 new Democratic Senate seats in a heartbeat. But I do think the concept of revealed preference is important here ⁠— it is true that Democrats haven’t evinced as much concern about anti-democratic threats from the right and the prospect of being shuttered from power as their rhetoric suggests they should. If they did, they would be laying the groundwork for a different kind of politics ⁠— an effort to build popular support for even deeper reforms than the party has yet proposed rather than another season of implying to voters, falsely, that the structural deficits the party faces can be overcome just by voting harder. That’s still where the median Democrat is at; I don’t know what else will move them but losing and having even their modest ambitions continually frustrated. In that very narrow sense, Manchin’s making himself useful.

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