It seemed like Kevin McCarthy had thrown Democrats a lifeline. When the likely future Speaker of the House absentmindedly mused about his conference’s willingness to cut off America’s support for Ukraine’s war effort, Democrats were quick to leverage his disparagement of this popular initiative for all it was worth. But just as Democrats like President Joe Biden began to retail this new line of attack against the GOP, progressives swooped in to pull the rug out from under their own party. Again.
In an inexplicably bizarre episode on Monday, 30 House progressives sent a co-signed letter to the White House urging Joe Biden to seek a negotiated settlement with Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine. The letter was incoherent. It urges Biden to find a way to preserve a “free and independent Ukraine,” while appeasing both Moscow and Kyiv—a lovely idea no one had previously considered. It legitimized Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship by insisting that the risk of “World War III” is so pronounced that the West must pare back its objectives in Eastern Europe, but without sacrificing the interests of any party to this conflict.
The letter is so naïve and inchoate, it hardly needed to be drafted, much less sent. And yet, sent it was, somehow, nearly four months after it was written. House Democrats insisted their caucus was “furious” over this criticism of the White House, which effectively neutralizes the party’s effort to claim the GOP’s backbenchers represent a unique threat to Ukraine’s congressional support. Progressives are mortified over both the substance of their letter and the fact that it ever saw the light of day, which was apparently no one’s intention.
After less than 24 hours of backbiting and flop sweating, Progressives withdrew the letter they never wanted anyone to read. “We are united as Democrats in our unequivocal commitment to supporting Ukraine in their fight for their democracy and freedom in the face of the illegal and outrageous Russian invasion,” wrote Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the letter’s primary author. “Diplomacy is an important tool that can save lives — but it is just one tool.” Conscientious readers of the offending letter might conclude that, because the “alternative to diplomacy is protracted war,” with all its “catastrophic and unknowable risks,” there is only one desirable tool in that toolbox. But that’s their problem.
In the near term, this debacle effectively undermines an emerging line of attack against a potential GOP majority. The instinct to capitulate before Russia suffers too humiliating of a defeat is now a bipartisan phenomenon. As Republicans know by now, however, there are longer-term consequences for a party that makes itself beholden to a minority this tactically artless.
The klutzy ideologues who exposed the rifts within the Democratic coalition within days of a difficult election are the same folks who forced their party to spend a year’s worth of political capital on nothing. They called this nothing the “Build Back Better Act.” It was a product of progressives’ years in the wilderness, in which the party marinated in Great Society nostalgia and emerged brimming with new enthusiasm for old ideas. Even as inflationary pressure on the economy ate away at Americans’ purchasing power, Democrats bitterly negotiated among themselves over another multi-trillion-dollar proposal that would codify in law a generation’s worth of progressive aspirations. After a year of infighting, Democrats managed to pass a fraction of the spending they initially sought, but only by branding the spending spree an “inflation reduction” measure. That tells you something about the party’s level of pride in this progressive achievement.
The progressive caucus also deserves a lot of the credit for HR1—a messaging bill so important, it was first on this Congress’s docket. The so-called “For the People Act” displayed abject contempt for the Constitution. Its provisions would have forced political groups to advertise the identities of their high-dollar donors and included restrictions on lobbying so onerous they could criminalize casual conversations between former government officials and contractors or lawmakers. It would have wrested the process of redistricting out of the hands of the states, nationalized elections, and limited the independence of the federal judiciary. Democrats are fortunate this showpiece legislation went nowhere, if only because they were spared the embarrassment of the courts’ rebukes.
Progressives are behind the administration’s half-hearted effort to “study” packing the Supreme Court with friendly justices, even though the politically toxic proposal was never going anywhere. Progressives leveraged the shock of skyrocketing energy prices to force the White House into declaring a “climate emergency” that would exacerbate that shock with federally imposed bans on the exploration and subsidization of domestic energy production. Progressive lobbied the president to extend the pandemic-related moratorium on evictions and the cancelation of student-loan debt, both of which have so far produced embarrassing rebukes in the courts. Progressives pushed for a vote to codify Roe in law (in a bill that went well beyond Roe), which failed in its dual objectives of nationalizing American abortion law and “mobilizing voters.”
In short, progressives have wasted all our time. Their faith in their own vision of how America might one day look has blinded them to the system as it is, which explains why they’re so often found turning out of cul-de-sacs. No one should be more furious over their myopic failures than the president. But Joe Biden seems as willing as ever to defer to this maladroit caucus of wide-eyed true believers. The consequences of progressives’ misjudgments, therefore, will be broadly shared.