How much is the Democratic Left losing? Let us count the ways.
1. Build Back Better. This was the vessel into which all the hopes and priorities of the Democratic Left were poured. And it has proved to be a catastrophic failure. While the Democratic Congress, on the Democratic Left’s insistence, wasted months in arcane negotiations about bill structure, what programs it would and would not cover and how many trillions of dollars it all would cost, ordinary voters were trying to cope with the Delta wave and the emergence of supply and inflation problems in the economy. As they became increasingly unhappy with the Biden administration and increasingly unsure just when things would finally get back to normal, the endless, confusing negotiations went on.
This was a terrible look for the Democrats, making them seem out of touch with the country and ordinary voters. And in the end, nothing got done.
2. The Infrastructure Bill. Here is a textbook case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Dimitri Melhorn, an advisor to Democratic politicians and anti-Trump megadonors, put it well in an exchange on Micah Sifry’s substack:
We had a moment in August 2021 when Biden was not yet underwater, and he achieved a landmark victory in getting 69 Senators to vote for a bipartisan infrastructure bill. The power of the word "bipartisan" in this era is immense, which is why McConnell and his allies have worked so hard to prevent it from ever happening under Obama or Biden. The power of roads and bridges is immense, especially for an administration that campaigned largely on the narrative of restoration of basic norms, especially at a time when the left claimed that we could not get 60 votes to pass an "ice cream tastes good" resolution. We had a $1 trillion bipartisan bill and opportunity at that point to pass that bill and reap massive, massive PR and electoral benefits. We decided not to, apparently based on a desire to energize the base, with a hardline campaign to fight for the best stuff in BBB at the highest possible spending levels.
This is political malpractice of the highest order. And another egregious failure for the Democratic Left’s balance sheet.
3. Voting Rights/Election Integrity. Clearly, the biggest election process need coming out of the 2020 election was safeguarding election integrity, not liberalizing voting procedures. Yet the Democratic Left pushed the For the People Act (HR1/S1), a Christmas tree of a bill embodying every Democratic election reform under the sun. That was eventually slimmed down to the John Lewis Voting Rights/Freedom to Vote Act which the Democratic Left insisted be prioritized and pushed to a Congressional vote. As everyone knew would happen, the bill couldn’t break a Senate filibuster and failed.
Ironically, even if the bill had passed, the bigger problem of election integrity—not the casting of votes, but rather keeping their counting and certification out of partisan hands—would have remained. This, after all, was what Trump was trying to subvert in the aftermath of the 2020 election. In contrast, reforming the Electoral Count Act, which had some bipartisan support and would have helped on the counting/certification front, has languished for lack of attention. Another loss for the Democratic Left—and for their party and country.
4. Climate/Energy. The Democratic Left had big plans for action on climate change. They were primarily invested in the Build Back Better bill which of course failed. This has not deterred the Democratic Left from continuing to push their idea for a Green New Deal, entailing a rapid transition to all-renewable energy, despite the spiking energy prices that make this approach even less viable in policy and political terms.
The reality is that an “all-of-the-above” approach, is still necessary to provide reasonable energy security and to keep energy prices under control. The public knows this. In a recent Pew poll, by more than 2:1 (67 percent to 31 percent) the public endorsed “Use a mix of energy sources including oil, coal and natural gas along with renewable energy sources” over “Phase out the use of oil, coal and natural gas completely, relying instead on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power only”. And this is after years of unrelenting climate catastrophism from the Democratic Left that has basically said take drastic action or face the dire consequences. This approach has not worked and must be rated another failure by the Democratic Left.
5. Police Reform/Crime. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the nationwide movement sparked by it, the climate for police reform was highly favorable. But the Democratic Left blew the opportunity by associating the movement with unpopular slogans like “defund the police” that did not appear to take public safety concerns very seriously.
The Democratic Left is also associated with a wave of progressive public prosecutors who seem quite hesitant about keeping criminals off the street, even as a spike in violent crimes like murders and carjacking sweeps the nation. This is twinned to a climate of tolerance and non-prosecution for lesser crimes that is degrading the quality of life in many cities under Democratic control.
As a result, crime has become a huge and debilitating issue for the Democratic party, leaving police reform as something of an afterthought. Democratic politicians instead are understandably pre-occupied with embracing police funding and public safety as high priorities to counter their current terrible image. This must also be reckoned a failure—and a big one—for the Democratic Left.
6. Immigration. The Democratic Left’s influence on the immigration issue could be seen in 2019-20, as Democratic Presidential candidates competed with each other in their zeal to decriminalize border crossings. Not much has changed since then. The Democratic Left applauded initial Biden administration efforts to make the US immigration system more welcoming. But this perceived liberalization of the border regime did indeed spur more migrants to try their luck at their border. An astonishing 1.7 million illegal crossings at the southern border were recorded in the 2021 fiscal year, the highest total since at least 1960, when the government first started keeping such records. In response, the administration scrambled to deploy whatever tools it has at its disposal, including some left over from the Trump administration, to stem the tide.
This has not sat well with the Democratic Left, which has led most Democratic politicians to treat the topic of border security—and even the phrase—very gingerly (though Biden did at least allude to the need to “secure the border” in his State of the Union speech). As a result, there is no clear Democratic plan for an immigration system that would both permit reasonable levels of legal immigration and provide the border security necessary to stem illegal immigration. Nothing illustrates this better than the Biden administration’s current plan to end the Trump-era Title 42 (now scheduled for May 23) under pressure from the Democratic Left, a move that is both widely unpopular and will almost certainly lead to a further surge of immigrants at the border and increased pressure on an already-overwhelmed system.
This is neither good for the Democratic party, which now rates far below the Republican party on the immigration issue, nor the general cause of immigration reform. Put another one in the loss column for the Democratic Left.
7. Abortion. With the likely impending demise of Roe v. Wade at the hands of the Supreme Court, the Democratic Left is on high alert. Unfortunately, that high alert doesn’t seem to be too centered on what most American voters would actually support. With the enthusiastic support of the Democratic Left, Chuck Schumer had the Senate vote on a bill that would effectively have legalized abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy (perhaps a sixth of Americans support legal third trimester abortions). Of course, it failed.
As the previously-cited Dimitri Melhorn noted:
The fight about abortion is all about framing. Most Americans are in the middle. Republicans ranged from moderately pro-choice to hardline pro-life but no one really cared because Roe was the law of the land. The hardline pro-life position in other words did nothing to bother most voters. Democrats’ historic track record in attacking people with even soft pro-life sympathies and purging them from the caucus created this current moment of threat to women by helping associate Democrats with an extremely unpopular position rather than the Safe Legal and Rare positioning that could actually win elections….Democrats are intensely skilled at allowing the GOP to get away with unpopular extremism by running to their own extreme.
As the great Casey Stengel might have put it: “Can’t anyone here play this game?”
The thread that runs through all these failures is the Democratic Left’s adamant refusal to base its political approach on the actually-existing opinions and values of actually-existing American voters. Instead they entertain fantasies about kindling a prairie fire of progressive turnout with their approach, despite falling short again and again in the real world. It hasn’t worked and it won’t work.
Instead, what they need is a plan on how to win outside of deep blue areas and states (the average Congressional Progressive Caucus leader is from a Democratic +19 district). That entails compromises that, so far, the Democratic Left has not been willing to make. Cultural moderation, effective governance and smart campaigning are what is needed to win in competitive areas of the country. If democracy is in as much danger as the Democratic Left appears to believe, would not such compromises be worth making? And wouldn’t winning make a nice change of pace at this point?