Mutually assured destruction prevented nuclear armageddon during the Cold War. As MAD as it was, it may just work for Democrats to pass a $4 trillion legislative agenda.
The strategy of mutually assured destruction, or MAD, is based on two orders of events: There’s the first-strike capability of two sides with nuclear arsenals. Then there’s the second-strike capability where either side could retaliate against an initial attack. This promise of mutual annihilation leads to the “rational” equilibrium of nuclear deterrence, even amid distrust and animosity.
In Congress, humanity may not be at stake, but the Democratic agenda is, as nukes are replaced with “nay” votes. President Joe Biden has laid out an ambitious Build Back Better agenda that is coupled with long-standing Democratic priorities.
But it’s a tenuous majority for Democrats — the narrowest margins ever for a party with unified control. Democrats can only afford three defections in the House. Reconciliation provides a simple majority path in the Senate, but it requires Democratic unanimity.
As homogenous as the Democratic Party has become, there remains distrust between its progressive and centrist elements, resulting in a two-track legislative process to assuage both sides. There’s the $550 billion in new spending from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that passed the Senate with some Republican support. This appeals to centrist proclivities of working across the aisle and not raising taxes. Then there’s the partisan budget resolution laying out reconciliation parameters for up to $3.5 trillion in spending that’s partially offset by progressive pay-fors.
Unsurprisingly, this process has Democratic tensions flaring. Nine House centrists said they wouldn’t support the budget resolution until there’s a vote on the IIJA. Worried that centrists won’t support $3.5 trillion in reconciliation spending, dozens of House progressives threatened to oppose the IIJA if it were to come up for a vote in the House before there’s a vote on reconciliation.
It’s classic “Democrats in disarray.” But it’s exactly this disarray that creates MAD stability. If House progressives vote against the IIJA (first strike), centrists could destroy the reconciliation agenda (second strike). If House centrists vote against the budget resolution (first strike), House progressives could destroy the IIJA (second strike). That’s because progressive opposition likely outnumbers House Republican support, a cohort adhering to the IIJA-bashing of former President Donald Trump.
For Democrats, no one wants to come home empty-handed. The equilibrium is to delay a House vote on the IIJA until Democrats pass reconciliation. In this tenuous moment, resolute leadership matters. Biden has held elected office for longer than the entire Cold War.
As the most popular Democrat today, Biden has the power to keep Democrats united under his preferred agenda as he seeks a “transformational” presidency. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) may not be the Iron Lady, but she wields an “iron fist with a Gucci glove.” With her expected retirement next year, it’s now or never for Pelosi to pass legacy-defining legislation. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is more beloved than feared, but he uses Cold War technology to great effect. His Mikhail Gorbachev is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): The Budget Committee chair embraced pragmatism over democratic socialism in moving the left flank of the party from a $6 trillion budget resolution down to $3.5 trillion.
In a time of heightened polarization, Democratic leadership has a compelling case to make it so that the success of this $4 trillion agenda means success for most of the rank-and-file. Paring it back won’t make one iota of difference in the ferocity of Republican attacks on the “radical socialist” agenda. On the flip side, the Democratic base, which is critical to turnout in the midterms, is more enthused about the $4 trillion Biden agenda than smaller legislation.
Statements from Democratic deficit hawks harken back to the saber rattling of their GOP brethren in 2017. Then-Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) excoriated deficit-financed tax cuts before voting for the multitrillion-dollar Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said the IIJA was “fully paid for” when the official scorekeepers say that’s far from the case. When the political will is there, fiscal responsibility is malleable and so are the offsets. Manchin and other centrists may exact their pound of flesh, but they’ll step back from the brink if Democratic leadership leads the way.
Such leadership could win the Nobel Peace Prize in legislating if they navigate the two-track process to completion. But in a mad world with razor-thin margins, a few rogue actors (not to mention “the biggest coalition businesses ever put together“) could destabilize the tense Democratic peace. In the end, Democrats could be singing “We’ll Meet Again” as legislative armageddon is at hand.
Ben Koltun is the director of research at Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington, D.C.
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