Joe Biden Is Poised to Gut His Own Political Agenda — and the Democrats’ Electoral Prospects

Joe Biden’s whole agenda is being held for ransom by a handful of corrupt extortionists in the Senate — and Biden seems basically fine with it.

President Joe Biden speaks at an event in Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

On its face, Congress’s ongoing reconciliation fight is a complex, inscrutable, and labyrinthine process consisting of many constantly shifting parts. At the level of granular detail, this is indeed the case and, alongside months of piss-poor media coverage, it’s a major reason why the American public still understands very little about what’s actually at stake. But, behind the facade of intricate and fluid horse trading, the basic dynamic remains fixed and unchanged — as ossified as it was the day debate over the package began.

From its very outset, the reconciliation battle has been framed as a negotiation pitting ideological progressives against pragmatic moderates, with the former pursuing a suite of ambitious spending proposals and the latter a smaller overall price tag. As per the latest developments, the figure most frequently at the center of narrative — West Virginia senator Joe Manchin — appears to have coaxed the Biden White House into radically pairing down what was already a compromise position into something still more austere and less ambitious.

Though not yet finalized, the parameters of a prospective deal now look poised to cut the standing $3.5 trillion of planned expenditures over the next ten years to something totaling less than $2 trillion — with free community college, key climate measures, subsidies for programs to help the disabled and elderly, and proposed enhancements to the child tax credit apparently on the chopping block. At time of writing, there is also new speculation that Manchin is threatening to exit the Democratic caucus unless the lacerating cuts are made, and that, even if they are, he may be planning to leave by November 2022 regardless. (Manchin denies this report).

In broad strokes, this is the current state of play in the negotiations — one that decidedly favors Manchin and his would-be centrist crusade to walk the administration back from the precipice of ideological excess. But to even call ongoing proceedings a “negotiation” is to omit the most nakedly obvious facts from the equation and, in turn, represent the process as something other than what it so clearly is. A negotiation, at least in the sense generally implied here, occurs between two or more parties with divergent positions presumed to be held in good faith.

Accordingly, the Biden White House, along with many senior Democrats and members of the media, has consistently acted as if the likes of Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema are good faith actors pursuing a coherent set of objectives with the ultimate goal of reaching a compromise. In this absurd pantomime of legislative brokerage, Manchin and Sinema get to play act as “moderates” who have “concerns” about the bill’s size and composition — a rendering of events that is at once completely fraudulent and widely accepted.

As anyone capable of comparing votes and political positions with donation and contribution records can quite easily see, what is officially a dispute between progressives and moderates is more accurately understood as a fight between one group pursuing an actual legislative agenda and another fronting for a sprawling alliance of corporate interests who want to derail it for cynically self-interested reasons. As the Prospect’s Alexander Sammon rather succinctly put it last week, so-called moderates

…can’t conjure a contrary vision, or even a counteroffer, other than making things smaller for smaller’s sake. They don’t 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 party’s 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 they’re opposed to popular things beyond the fact that they’re paid to be. . . . Behind the curtain of centrism, and its foremost exponents, sits a bunch of corporate cash, and nothing else.”

Between Manchin, a literal coal baron, resisting climate action and Sinema raking in huge donations from Big Pharma while opposing efforts to lower prescription drug prices, the systemic corruption and rot at the heart of America’s political system has rarely, if ever, been so naked. Unable to concede or confront this reality, the Biden presidency now looks to be barreling head first toward a fatally compromised outcome falling well short of the gushing auguries and comparisons to FDR that greeted its initial months in office. The result, or at least the most likely one, is a drastically paired down bill so riddled with holes, carve outs, and means-tests it proves impossible to convert into a winning, let alone coherent, midterm message.

In exposing the deep dysfunction of America’s political institutions, the reconciliation battle has also, yet again, laid bare the structuring contradiction of the Democratic Party as a vehicle for real reform. Having begun the process by proposing trillions in big programs and new spending, the party’s subsequent negotiation with itself looks set to yield something both ideologically feeble and electorally counterproductive.

Among other things, that’s because the Democratic coalition is less a coherent ideological formation than it is a Frankenstein hodgepodge of progressives, public interest groups, liberally minded voters and corporate lobbies — with the latter, by virtue of its influence in DC, bottomless reserve of campaign cash, and de facto purchase of many elected representatives almost invariably carrying the day.

While the reconciliation battle has also, at times, showcased the growing confidence of the Congressional left — a faction far more muscular in its commitment to what is generally called “the Biden agenda” than the president himself — it has ultimately been an all too predictable tale of liberal diffidence and corporate capture. And, unless something fundamental shifts in the coming days and weeks, the ending will be one we’ve all seen before.