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The Freedom Agenda and the Post-Manchin Path Forward
Joe Manchin has once again stymied the Democrats, here are some ideas about what to do next
Getting kicked in the solar plexus hurts whether you expect it or not. Of course, I knew Joe Manchin would once again torpedo the last, best chance at climate legislation. But learning about the latest move from West Virginia’s runaway legislative bride was still painful and infuriating. Manchin has done this multiple times on multiple issues in the last year, and it was inevitable that he would pull the rug out from the Biden agenda in the most annoying way possible. Defying expectations and passing a major piece of climate and tax legislation was the best way to reset the narrative of disappointment that has been (somewhat unfairly) dragging down Biden’s numbers for nearly a year. Last but not least, Manchin possibly squandered our last, best chance to take meaningful action to address climate change — and he has done so for the dumbest, most incoherent reasons possible.
Many wrote (and more will write) about why Democrats failed, the legislative and political strategy miscalculations, and what it might all mean for the future of the party and the planet. Today, I will channel my rage, frustration, and disappointment into a path forward.
Step 1: Pass the Backup Deal
While Manchin walked away from a climate bill, he did declare he was willing to pass a smaller bill that included allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and temporary extension of the Affordable Care Act subsidies that were passed during the pandemic. President Biden wisely told Senate Democrats to accept Manchin’s offer. While this deal suffers in comparison to the original $3 trillion bill passed by the House last year and the slimmed down version that Manchin was briefly (and perhaps performatively) negotiating with Senator Schumer, it is a pretty big deal. Allowing Medicare to negotiate Rx prices is consistently the highest testing policy proposal in polling. In a recent Data for Progress poll, 81 percent of voters — including eight in 10 Republicans — support the idea.
This is not a consolation prize. Without Build Back Better or expectations for an FDR-sized agenda, passage of a bill to lower prescription drug costs is a BFD in the parlance of Joe Biden. Temporary extension of the ACA subsidies kicks the can down the road, but prevents an election eve increase in premiums that would have been one of the greatest unforced errors in political history. The extension is a huge relief for consumers (and politicians).
The political power of this accomplishment is magnified in an election season dominated by concerns about inflation. If and when this bill is signed into law, it will be real, tangible action to address the strains inflation is putting on family budgets. It is something to run on and a powerful point of comparison with Republicans whose response to inflation is tax cuts for the corporations profiting off our pain and banning abortion.
Step 2: Reframe the Recent Pass
If you follow any Biden aides on Twitter, you can feel their palpable frustration that the President is not getting enough credit for his successes. They are not wrong. There is dissonance between the media narrative about Biden and the reality of his accomplishments. Much of his presidency is being framed around what he hasn’t done as opposed to what has been done. Inflation, a war with Russia, and a persistent pandemic are crowding the good news. The fact that passage of the first ever piece of gun legislation was overshadowed by the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade is a pitch perfect example of Biden’s demonization. The public (and the press) hear a pessimistic story, but passage of the Rx drug bill could be the circuit breaker Biden so desperately needs. It may create a window to reframe the recent past.
I have long argued against running on a platform of #DemsDeliver. Campaigns should be forward-looking and contrastive, not backward-looking and transactional. Anyone who has talked to activists and organizers in recent months heard countless stories from 2020 volunteers and voters who think their time and votes were squandered.
To reconstitute the coalition that delivered in the House, Senate, and White House, Democrats (and all of us) must do a better job telling the story of the Biden Presidency to date. None of the following things were possible without Democratic control of the White House, Senate and House:
An American Rescue Plan that created millions of jobs, funded the vaccination campaign, and re-opened schools;
A bipartisan infrastructure law that will create good paying jobs and grow the economy;
The first gun safety law in 30 years;
The first Black woman to the Supreme Court;
More Judges confirmed at this point in his term than any president since John F. Kennedy;
More than eight million jobs created; and
The most diverse, pro-labor Cabinet and White House staff in history.
Is this everything we wanted? Of course not, but it is a lot. It’s fair to criticize elected Democrats for being unwilling to level with voters about the difficulty of passing the agenda.
But Dems have a story to tell, and the traditional media won’t tell it for us.If people don’t think their votes mattered in the past, they won’t vote in the future.
Step 3: A Freedom Agenda
There are a few ideas that retired political hacks turned pundits offer to folks in the arena. All of these ideas are old concepts that worked in very different and distant times dressed up with a new coat of paint. For example, the David Gergen generation has been trying to convince Democrats to do Rooseveltian Fireside Chats for the last two-plus decades. A “Contract for America” is another idea that rears its ugly head whenever Dems are in trouble. For those not as old or nerdy as I, the Contract for America is the policy agenda that House Republicans put forward in 1994 when they finally took the House after a half-century in the minority. This agenda is largely (and probably incorrectly) credited with their victory. In 2006, Democrats unveiled an agenda. I was initially skeptical of Democrats offering their own contract this fall, but a recent column by Perry Bacon in the Washington Post convinced me. Perry wrote:
Ahead of November’s midterm elections, Democrats should offer a straightforward, comprehensive agenda and commit to passing it if they keep control of Congress (or, in the case of the Senate, gain true control). Such an agenda could mobilize the party’s base, woo swing voters and, most important, guarantee that we don’t see a repeat of the demoralizing do-little Washington of the past two years.
Reportedly, Democrats are already working on a plan to hold a series of votes on issues like protecting marriage equality, access to contraception, and other rights being targeted by the Republicans in the courts and states. The House already passed legislation to protect interstate travel to access abortions and price gouging from oil companies. This is all great stuff, but I worry that the sum will be less than the total of the parts. It’s nearly impossible to get press coverage for bills with no chance of ratification. Therefore, an overarching agenda with a name that ties it all together will simplify what is happening for voters; and it will hand the press a new narrative in the form of a shiny object that fits in a tweet. Sometimes you have to repeatedly signal the play with all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer. As the old adage goes, “Tell ‘em what you are going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”
There are a million different approaches, and I am notoriously bad at naming things (you are, after all, reading a newsletter called the Message Box), but I would humbly suggest something like the “American Freedom Agenda.” There are two advantages to framing this agenda around freedom. First, there is a lot of polling circulating in the party that shows that, in the wake of the Dobbs decision and 1/6 hearings, focusing on freedom is a powerfully persuasive message. Second, “freedom” can serve as a bridge between various Democratic issues.
After failing to deliver on climate, immigration, or codifying Roe, Democrats face a credibility problem. One way to build trust in the agenda would be to get 48 Democrats to sign a piece of paper saying they would be willing to eliminate the filibuster to pass these items. President Biden must offer his enthusiastic support for that pledge.
This is not an exhaustive list, but an American Freedom Agenda could look something like this:
$15 minimum wage
Prevent price gouging
Paid family leave
Child tax credit
Investments in stopping climate change (Biden Climate Plan)
Protect access to contraception
Protect marriage equality
The Equality Act
Gun safety laws, including universal background checks and an assault weapons ban
Voting rights legislation
End dark money in politics
Ethics reform (including bans on members trading stocks)
There are plenty of things missing from this list, but you get the idea. The goal is to simplify the Democratic agenda into an easily understandable digital palm card of sorts. Every item on here should implicitly highlight the fact that the Republican Party’s social agenda is controlled by Right Wing extremists, and its economic agenda is dictated by the corporations that bankroll their campaigns. I know herding the cats around this agenda probably seems exhausting if not nearly impossible, and I know taking a page out of Newt Gingrich’s playbook seems dirty, but Democrats are on track to lose this fall. We need to take big risks to shake up the political environment. Maybe inflation is so bad, and the die is cast. If that is the case, we might as well go down fighting for the things we care about.