Mutually Assured Destruction, Nancy Pelosi’s Plans and the Savviness of Bernie Sanders


Democrats finally have power. So of course they’re squabbling over what to do with it.

Lately, the drama has centered on the group of moderate House Democrats who threatened to tank approval of a $3.5 trillion budget — a key step in advancing Joe Biden’s agenda — until they got a vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill. After some late nights and growing acrimony, a deal was reached to move forward, but it ultimately only postponed a reckoning into the fall.

As the divide between the party’s factions grows sharper, Biden’s ambitious plans are at risk along with Democrats’ prospects in 2022. So we asked an outsider — a Republican — to weigh in with how Democrats can achieve at least a cold peace and avoid catastrophe.

Professionally, Liam Donovan is a lobbyist and former GOP political operative. But he’s also known as a keen, clear-eyed analyst of legislative maneuvering on Twitter (@lpdonovan), and he’s got some friendly advice for Democrats, if they’re willing to listen.

“The key for these guys is don’t lose the plot. You have to fight your battles with the proper perspective. You have to go in knowing that you’re not going to get all of what you want. There’s going to be a half loaf involved,” he says.

“Don’t put yourself in a position where you can’t save face at the end of the day, because that’s what the bottom line is. Everybody has to save face,” Donovan adds. “Give yourselves off-ramps, give yourselves opportunities to take the win. And I think it’s ridiculous coming from a Republican lobbyist, but I think that’s how you get it done.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the rest of the Democratic caucus are in for a rough month ahead. Pelosi has promised moderates a vote on the infrastructure bill by Sept. 27, but progressives vow they won’t provide their support unless a sweeping social spending package is passed through reconciliation first. Meanwhile, how Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema can find consensus on the reconciliation bill is the multi-trillion-dollar question.

Here are seven takeaways from our conversation on how Democrats got to this point and what they need to do next. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Why moderates picked a fight over the budget

It’s funny, I actually did not think it was particularly wise, mostly because I didn’t think there was much to be gained. But I think what informs everything broadly, and frankly, what’s coming in September is just a profound lack of trust between these two sides.

It’s both sort of intra-caucus and intra-cameral. So there’s this mistrust between the House and the Senate — the House is sick of getting jammed — but also within the House, this is playing out. This was [moderates’] only real leverage point. If you outsource all of the squeaky wheel stuff to the Senate, then that's a big leap. You’re sort of trusting Manchin and Sinema to be the safety on whatever might get through [on budget reconciliation].

And I think there’s something to be said for what they secured here from their perspective in terms of at least nominally separating the fate of infrastructure versus the reconciliation package. And what informs all of this, whether you’re coming from the moderate perspective or from the progressive perspective, is the improbable extremes: the moderates are basically acting as though they’ll be faced with a choice of swallowing a $3.5 trillion bill or not getting what they want, and conversely, the progressives are acting as though they have to hold this hostage in the form of the infrastructure bill or moderates are just going to take down the whole process. I don’t think either of those things are going to happen.

I think mutually assured destruction sort of got us into this process. But it’s going to take a leap of faith to some degree to kind of land this thing. And I think that's what we’re kind of running into. I think the mistrust and prospective disagreements on substance have seeped into process. And that’s what they're going to have to get around if they want to truly start negotiating in earnest.

What Pelosi gave away in the deal

I think the meaningful thing in here is [moderates] don’t want to be put in a position where they have to go beyond their comfort zone [on the reconciliation bill]. Essentially, they don’t want to be legislatively extorted. Neither side wants to swallow something that they don’t like, and so they want to keep something that that they can hold over the other.

This is only as convincing as these people are likely to shoot the hostage. We saw for the first time, the moderates put in a position where they have to either press leadership or blink, and I think they came out somewhere in between where they stared [Pelosi] down and forced tangible concessions.

Did they truly delink these things? I think that remains to be seen. She said what she had to say to make these guys happy and lived to fight another day. What she would tell you, and I’m sure what her team would tell you privately, is this was always going to happen. This was always going to be the plan. The problem is that might be the case. But she couldn’t say the plan out loud because saying the plan out loud makes it complicated. And so now they’re on this abbreviated timetable where you have to — whether or not you can actually get [reconciliation] done in September — you have to act like you can and try until you can’t. And that’s going to make it really tricky.

All of this is about saving face and that intersection between trust and saving face. And by putting a firm date on infrastructure, that’s a serious concession. But it also makes it harder to see how we let everybody save face, particularly when the speaker is out there on a limb saying, “I’m going to pass this, I'm going to rally the House.”

You’ve put progressives in a position where they've had to stake out turf that they’re going to have to recede from or stick to in a few weeks here. It does put progressives in a tough spot of having to shoot down what is essentially a must-pass bill at the end of September, go against leadership and deny the White House a win that they presumably want.

How Biden painted Republicans into a corner in the first place

There’s two elements that made [the infrastructure bill] work. One was the experience of the American Rescue Plan, where the president steamrolled Republicans because he had consensus. And I think demonstrating to Republicans, “you lowball my offer and put Democrats in a position where they all agree, I’m not going to hesitate for the sake of bipartisanship.” So I think that was a shot across the bow that, hey, I can get Democrats to agree to big things, even the ones you think are on your side. I can get them if you don’t play ball in a good faith manner. So I think that was a gut check for Republicans. I think that informed the infrastructure negotiations.

At the same time, I think there was always a sense among many Democrats that Manchin and Sinema are just doing this for show, when it fails, they’ll say, hey, we tried and go to reconciliation. I think without Manchin and Sinema insisting not that this be theater, not only that, but this come to fruition, that’s why this happened. And it intersects with Biden’s brand. I think he sees the inherent value in bipartisanship. But I think those two things had to happen. Biden had to prove that he could go it alone, and the Democrats — the marginal Democrats — had to really want it.

The Senate, I think we all can agree, is going to be the lowest common denominator [on reconciliation], both procedurally and in terms of the scope and scale. And I guess the most interesting part of the resolution of the standoff with the moderates — everyone’s really focused on the date, because that’s the tangible thing they got — if you read Speaker Pelosi’s statement very closely, the most interesting line in there relates to her commitment that they pass a bill that can pass the Senate, which would fly in the face of the idea, which I think was sort of common, which was, the House passes a big bill that makes progressives happy; they do this sort of back and forth; and then they settle somewhere in the middle. And that would seem to foreclose that and also make it so they need to go through the “Byrd bath” process sort of preemptively, pre-conference as much of this as possible, which is both smart if you want to get this done smoothly, but also is going to make it really tough to get it done by the end of September.

How the 2022 midterms shape the psychology of the clash

It’s a key part of the tension, because the collective interest is in accomplishing as much as you can as soon as you can, whereas the individual interests are much more fraught. We could argue in theory as to whether it matters if you vote for this or that, or go big or go small, do voters really parse these things? But to a member, considering their individual circumstances, this all feels very important.

And so I think for progressives, there’s the fierce urgency of now. For the vulnerable members or the front-line members, I think there's a wariness of going too big or doing something that is going to be used against you.

Let’s look back at Obamacare. The Blue Dog members that opposed Obamacare, that didn’t save them. To the extent they survived, they’re gone now. They were gone within a few cycles. Most of them lost anyway. You’re not going to save your own skin by going against your party. The parties are sorted. Voters are polarized. The D next to your name or the R next your name determines most of this. You’re going to get blamed for this if it happens, you’re going to get credit for it if it does.

I think what members are wary of — the ACA vote is not instructive — but I think the cap-and-trade vote is. What members don’t want to do is take hard votes that don’t lead anywhere. That’s what informs the commitment, however nominal, that they got in that statement, which is we’re going to vote on something that can become law, that’s something that can pass the Senate. Everybody’s going to have to hold hands and jump at the end of the day, but they don’t want to take a messaging vote that is going to come back to haunt them next fall. And I think that’s a perfectly, perfectly rational concern.

The savviness of Bernie Sanders

I think the key for these guys is don’t lose the plot. You have to fight your battles with the proper perspective. You have to go in knowing that you’re not going to get all of what you want. There’s going to be a half loaf involved. And I think who’s been most savvy about this all along has been Bernie Sanders. He’s the guy that was pushing for a $6 trillion bill, knowing full well it was going to land somewhere less. He has the trust of the base such that if he blesses it, then it has to be OK. I think that his counterparts in the House have that same credibility.

And the question is and will continue to be, are they sort of in on the joke that a lot of this is theater, in the sense that you need to leverage the best you can get, but at the end of the day, whether that’s $1.75 trillion or $3 trillion or whatever it is, that’s going to have to be what it is? And I think this goes back to the issue of mutually assured destruction being useful until it isn’t. Because at the end of the day, if you’re if you’re willing to blow up a trillion-plus dollar deal because it’s not everything you want, I don’t think that is productive. I don’t think it’s helpful to anyone.

The incentives are aligned such that they will get something done. The question is who can afford to walk away? And I think that’s where Manchin and Sinema’s leverage comes in, which is, they’re game to do this, but they have a walk away number and they’ve already said that it’s $3.5 trillion. The question is where that ceiling is. And I think they’re very credible as people who don't need this at any cost, whereas it’s much tougher to see progressives blowing it up, because again, like a micro-sized version of this is still the second biggest piece of legislation ever.

I think that’s the key for these guys. Play your part and fight the battles until they’re over. But don’t lose the plot and get the expectations so out of whack that you can’t save face and take the win at the end of the day. Because everybody, whether this is a trillion dollars, two trillion dollars, whatever it is, at the end of the day, these guys are going to go out and sell this on the trail and it’s going to be the best thing ever. So I think that’s what they need to remember.

And again, it comes back to this sort of mutual trust, which is in short supply. But I think getting to the budget resolution was an opportunity to build some good faith. I think it just sets up some other tests of trust coming up in September.

How Pelosi and Schumer can rebuild trust within the party

I think trust will be strained before it is rebuilt.

I think, to make the House process work in September, there probably have to be certain assurances made by the Senate. I think there will have to be like smoke signals sent that help to build trust of what’s going to happen. Ben Koltun, one of the things he pointed to was in 2010, before Pelosi would bring something to the floor, she got [Harry]Reid to get every Democratic senator to sign a letter saying that they would pass this. So I think there are small things that can be done publicly, privately, signaling exercises that will have to be there to sort of build this trust.

I think I think they’ll have to build trust along the way. Again, I feel like it’s easy to talk yourself into a corner and dig your position in so deep you can’t get out. I think the keys for these guys is to be patient. Don’t try to rush it and try not to lose the plot. So much of this is like coalition management, both in terms of your members and in terms of your stakeholders. And it’s easy to then have that run into the tension of expectations and requirements versus, again, the plot.

This is going to have some twists and turns. You’re going to land somewhere in between. Don’t put yourself in a position where you can’t save face at the end of the day, because that’s what the bottom line is. Everybody has to save face. Give yourselves off-ramps, give yourselves opportunities to take the win. And I think it’s ridiculous coming from a Republican lobbyist, but I think that’s how you get it done.

The real schedule for Biden’s agenda

It’ll be messy, it’ll be messy, and it won’t be nearly as abbreviated as they’re saying right now, which doesn’t mean it’s going to be end of the year. But you can’t rush this, and you shouldn’t rush this because you want to get the policy right. And that goes back to trust, because if you put a clock on it, then the progressives say, “Well, we have to get this done before then, because you’re going to get your thing.” And, you know, it could go sideways before then, but I think they’ll ultimately put it back on the rails and get it done.

I think the tricky part is… there’s just no forcing mechanisms after Sep. 30. Congress works on deadlines and the only deadlines in the fall are vacation related: oh, we want to get it done by Columbus Day, or we want to get it done by Thanksgiving, or the next legislative waypoint is going to be whatever the CR is. If the CR goes to mid-December, then that’s going to be the sort of backstop. And it helps to have the election year looming around the corner. I have to think they’ll figure it out before then.

The House is in a hurry, but I see no indication that Manchin or Sinema are in a hurry to get to the endgame. And until you’re in the end game, I think it’s still kind of the end of the beginning.

I think the experience of the American Rescue Plan has really obscured how this stuff typically works. Also, it obscures how much work a year’s worth of work went into making the American Rescue Plan happen. It took a year for all that stuff to be socialized, to be written, passed. Most of that was cribbed from the Heroes Act. What wasn’t cribbed from the Heroes Act was just CARES Act programs that were continued. And so this was stuff that was kind of internalized and became consensus within the Democratic Party. It was easy in a way that should not be instructive for anything else. It’s not going to happen in weeks like that happened.

And the other one you can point to is Tax Cuts and Jobs Act [from 2017], which is both much narrower in scope — it was purely tax — and it was something that Republicans generally agreed on. I mean, we’re cutting taxes, how can you screw that up? And even that took seven weeks from end to end. And what that obscures, again, is, talking to George Callas about this the other day who lived this, he was like, “I always have to remind myself, that took seven years, not seven weeks. Because it was built on [Dave] Camp draft 1.0, Camp draft 2.0, all kinds of false starts, all kinds of bills that were there on the shelf.

Some of this has been out there, but a lot of it’s either from scratch or not quite fully baked. And that’s why it's going to take time. It’s going to take time to get the policy right. And it’s not a snap your fingers and get this done kind of thing. So I think seven weeks is the best measure. Can they get it done in the same kind of time frame? It’s possible, but that also puts you well into October.

It’s arbitrary urgency. And I think that’s one thing that Manchin and Sinema have always been clear about and what they were clear about with infrastructure. “It’s not going to be some arbitrary timeline, we’re going to get this right.” And because it is purely arbitrary and based again on mistrust, you need to be patient. And to be patient, you need to have some level of trust. And so the catch is, OK, how do you start to rebuild some of that?

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