The Undignified Demise of Centrism – The American Prospect

Posted: October 13, 2021 at 7:34 pm

The fate and composition of the Build Back Better Act remain undetermined, and there exists a strong possibility that, despite President Bidens support for the $3.5 trillion package, the partys moderates will win out in their desire for a smaller bill. A recent statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, lamenting that the bill will likely be shrunk, and a Dear Colleague letter saying that Democrats must make difficult decisions and do fewer things well, indicates as much. What that means in practice is still up for debate, but moderates want and might get a smaller, less ambitious bill, absenting any or all of child care, prescription drug price reform, Medicare expansion, or meaningful tax reform.

The ongoing battle over Build Back Better harks back to the Affordable Care Act deliberation of 20092010, the last time the partys two halves were at loggerheads over an ambitious piece of legislation that they had the ability to pass into law. In that showdown, moderates triumphed definitively. They crushed progressives who were holding out for price controls, a public option, Medicare buy-in, anything. It was the moderates bill that became law, with a few scant progressive add-ons like community health centers (of course, it was much maligned, and ended up failing on numerous counts, but the reality of that was still far off).

Their victory was not just legislative. Democratic moderates (called center-left, but more accurately center-right) were riding high as a political camp. The Blue Dog Coalition sported record membership numbers in 2009 and 2010; the thensimilarly sized New Democrat Coalition suffered only minor losses compared to the widespread wipeout House Democrats suffered in the coming years under Obama, and rebounded quickly enough to establish itself as one of the largest caucuses in the party. Leadership in those caucuses was seen as the partys rising stars.

Most importantly, center-whatever moderates were taken as intellectually serious and rigorous, with a dispassionate ability to craft legislation and achieve desired outcomes far beyond the trenchant ideologues of the weakly Progressive Caucus. These were intelligent nudgers, market wizards, efficiency aficionados. An armada of young pundits was dispatched in the D.C. press scene to ensure that message took hold.

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The fight over BBB has been the opposite. No faction has revealed itself to be less intellectually rigorous or serious than the moderates. They are unwilling and seemingly unable to articulate a single positive concern, legislative vision, or priority for the Democratic agenda. They are allegedly worried about spending, but oppose tax hikes and hugely effective cost-saving in the way of drug pricing reform. They are worried about inflation but cant even engage with the reality that the entire bill seeks to lower the most acutely inflationary costshousing, education, health care, and child carefor American households. They cant conjure a contrary vision, or even a counteroffer, other than making things smaller for smallers sake. They dont even speak to the press to explain themselves. They do, however, oppose.

Making matters worse is the transparent corruption and pay-for-play that motivates the partys moderates in this wandering journey. The individual provisions inside the BBB are extremely popular with the American public, but not the corporate world and its lobbying apparatus, and its opponents make no attempt to even put forward a plausible explanation for why theyre opposed to popular things beyond the fact that theyre paid to be.

New Yorks Kathleen Rice, who held a leadership role in the New Democrat coalition last year, voted for the identical drug pricing reform bill that she just voted against barely two years ago, and conjured a nonsense excuse for why. Scott Peters of California, currently vice chair for policy of the New Democrats, pulled the same maneuver, and his explanation was standard-issue, roundly debunked loss of innovation pabulum ripped from industry tear sheets. When pressed on the exorbitant pharma money hes taken in, he didnt even pretend to disavow its influence on his judgment, but instead said he wouldnt defund [his] campaign so that Republicans can winthis in a district that Joe Biden carried by a cool 30 points. As is now well known, Big Pharma is by far his top campaign contributor, and his wifes investment firm sports a portfolio company that does manufacturing for pharmaceutical companies. Super-centrist Kurt Schrader of Oregonmember of the Blue Dogs, the Problem Solvers Caucus, and the New Democrat Coalitionanother holdout against drug pricing reform, inherited his personal fortune from a Pfizer executive.

New Jerseys Josh Gottheimer, co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus and a member of the Blue Dogs, has similarly been unable to muster a coherent position. No Labels, a conservative dark-money group out of which the Problem Solvers was born, tried and failed to down the entire BBB by uncoupling it from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, using Gottheimer as its de facto spokesperson. They spent a boatload of money celebrating him as a fearless leader in ad buys, and he took to their bidding in negotiations.

The Beltway press has tried to do its job in covering for them, but even they cant make a fundamentally unserious group of politicians seem to have a consistent intellectual framework.

But even in softball interviews with Punchbowl News, Gottheimer could manage no satisfying explanation for why the bipartisan bill had to be passed so urgently and without the reconciliation bill, because he couldnt say aloud the obvious, which is that the corporate donor class wanted no reconciliation bill at all. An early and often critic of the cost of the reconciliation package, he pivoted to celebrating the necessity of tax cuts via SALT, another one of his priorities, a very expensive component of the same reconciliation bill he was working against. None of these contradictions was even attempted to be explained. All of this happened in broad daylight.

But before the pivot, Gottheimer issued a scathing letter, flaming Nancy Pelosi for refusing to pass the infrastructure bill, which did not have the votes to pass, by the September 27 nonbinding deadline. The letter was meant to be signed by Gottheimer and the rest of the unbreakable nine, as No Labels branded them in their ad buy. But the other eight wouldnt even put their names to it, and Gottheimer had to run it solo, as sure a sign as any of the legitimacy crisis in these center-right organs, who have been shown to be so transparently loyal to lobbyist money, and so inconsistent and untactical in their approach, that recruiting new members is basically impossible. Even keeping current ones in the fold has become tough.

Its the same story in the Senate with Kyrsten Sinema, who is on the receiving end of generous ad buys from pharma groups one day, suddenly opposing drug pricing reform that she once ran on the next; taking money from Exxon one day, and opposing climate measures the next (as a former Green Party member no less). Ditto Joe Manchin, who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars from coal investments, and just so happens to oppose the climate provisions himself.

The Beltway press has tried to do its job in covering for them, but even they cant make a fundamentally unserious group of politicians seem to have a consistent intellectual framework. Axios tried to make Sinema seem contemplative with a puff piece about her aptitude in using Excel spreadsheets, but her repeated return to high-dollar fundraisers in the midst of a media maelstrom was too brazen to make the story stick. And on rare occasions when Sinema has spoken for herself, shes come off as even less serious than activists caricature of her corruption. This exchange, reported by NBC News producer Frank Thorp, sums it up neatly.

Q: What do you say to progressives who are frustrated they dont know where you are?

Sinema: Im in the Senate.

Q: There are progressives in the Senate that are also frustrated they dont know where you are either.

Sinema: Im clearly right in front of the elevator.

Behind the curtain of centrism, and its foremost exponents, sits a bunch of corporate cash, and nothing else. Even if those forces eke out a win, the insincere intellectual performance that has been used to justify letting big money have its way with an urgently needed and wildly popular piece of legislation has already done irreparable damage to the centrism brand. That trajectory is not without historical precedent; in the post-2008 era, libertarianism surged within the ranks of the Republican Party, before figurehead Paul Ryans big-brained whiz kid approach was revealed as nothing more than an unprincipled play to cut corporate taxes, and libertarianism lost its legitimacy, allure, and membership. Centrism seems to be on this path.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, now the largest caucus in the Democratic Party, with a surprising amount of power and discipline, continues to grow in its influence and scope, fighting for a number of clearly articulated policy priorities. These are coalitions headed in opposite directions.

Democratic centrism has been eulogized plenty of times in the past, all prematurely. After the 2016 election, for example, it was maligned for its inability to win elections, and pronounced dead with Hillary Clintons defeat against an extremely unpopular Republican opponent in Donald Trump. But those eulogies proved premature, and in the years since, centrists have managed to win plenty of elections (look no further than Joe Biden).

Centrism, now, is imperiled as a political orientation not for its competitive viability, but for the emptiness and corruption that has been exposed at its heart. Not a single young voter, or someone politically up for grabs, can look to the leadership of Kyrsten Sinema or Scott Peters and see a politician with a positive vision for governance and society, one they could believe in, knock on doors for, or turn out to vote for. Heck, Joe Biden cant even see that. All that exists is a list of donors and a willingness to imperil the agenda of one of their own and the entire success of the party, for the sake of a few bucks in their personal campaign coffers, and, if that doesnt work out, a plum private-sector job to fall back on.

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The Undignified Demise of Centrism - The American Prospect

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