The definition of a centrist is “a person who holds moderate political views” If you pay any attention to politics today, it’s hard to avoid the names of Democrat Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
The two centrists have torpedoed several of the more ambitious Democratic proposals, and have become the most hated or loved Senators, depending on who you ask.
Manchin and Sinema have earned plaudits from Republicans, and with President Biden positioned with a majority in both chambers of Congress, some have wondered why it seems like Democrats are negotiating with themselves.
The Biden Administration found itself in an incredibly precarious position when the new President entered the White House: the pandemic was raging full throttle, the real economy was languishing, and the political elite was worried American democracy was being ripped apart at the seams.
Who Runs Washington?
Amid this uncertainty, the two aforementioned centrist senators have played an outsized role in shaping the long and short-term future of America. Democrats were hoping to overwhelm Republicans in the 2020 elections, and while they took the Presidency and Senate, they did so with the slimmest of margins in the Senate and somewhat disappointing results.
A 50-50 split with a tiebreak going to the Democrats due to controlling the executive branch, necessitates some bipartisanship. But in a time where many Americans are demanding big changes, Manchin and Sinema have ruled the roost and pulled the Party to the political center.
In the Biden Administration, it’s become clear the moderates run Washington. Manchin and Sinema come from regions of the country where Trump performed well. Due to the 50/50 split in Congress, these moderates have an immense impact on the political agenda of the Biden presidency.
And with Republicans controlling a majority of redistricting, a concerted effort for moderate Democrats to run in close House seats to cling on to a majority is gaining credence. And for House Democrats looking to keep Speaker Pelosi in power and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy out of the Speaker position, going for the center might be the strategy the leadership chooses.
While Manchin and Sinema have enjoyed the spotlight, even more than their power on the political process, Democrats have to think of the 2022 midterm elections.
Typically, in a newly elected president’s first midterm election, the opposition party wins a high number of seats in Congress. Since FDR, George W. Bush is the only president who enjoyed a gain in the House of Representatives in their first term.
In Obama’s first midterm election, the Democrats saw a staggering 63-seat loss in the House, and Trump’s Republicans lost 40 seats in the 2018 election. Senate seats tend to have smaller swings, and in 2022 a similar trend is expected.
In what seems like premature analysis, some commentators are already condemning the Democrats to a hefty House defeat. This predicted demise is exacerbated by the redistricting woes the party faces after big defeats in state legislatures. The process of redistricting and gerrymandering is controlled by state legislatures, which will see the Republicans with a near 2-1 advantage over Democrats in setting up districts.
With the odds seemingly stacked against the Democrats, the Biden White House has to play a careful balancing act. It needs to pass quite bold legislation to keep voters happy and engaged, legislation that it’s right-wing does not always agree with. Similarly, a battle for the future of the party continues to wage internally, with more left-wing “Squad” members temporarily onside due to the massive challenges in governance related to the COVID pandemic.
But, the political moment of pandemic emergency is beginning to fade, with massive vaccination numbers leading to a return to some normalcy and a rejuvenated economy in the short term.
So, who does Biden need to appeal to, and who can help him stave off a loss in Congress?
What Delivers Victory: the Political Center or Left?
It may seem odd that President Joe Biden finds himself in between these two wings of the Democratic Party. In 2008, Biden was tapped as Barack Obama’s vice president as a nod to political moderates and the right-wing of the Democratic party.
But due to the political moment America finds itself in, the Biden administration has set itself on course to be more progressive than his former boss, President Obama. Of course, the Biden administration has not fully appeased its left-wing, and it has failed to step up to the plate on, and in fact worsened the refugee crisis.
With this said, the most progressive policies clamored for by the more left cadre in the Democratic Party have fallen flat in large part due to Manchin and Sinema. The latest legislation on D.C. statehood is a great example, it passed out of the House, but it will likely die in the Senate due to staunch Republican opposition with several breakaway Democrat votes.
This internal struggle within the Democratic Party extends beyond legislation and really gets heated on the electoral front. Establishment moderates like Representative Jim Clyburn claimed “Defund the Police” chants and a summer of civil unrest surrounding police shootings cost Democrats seats in the 2020 election.
In terms of Biden’s election win, exit polls show a majority of voters, 57%, supported Black Lives Matter and overwhelmingly voted for Biden. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blamed the loss in House seats on Democrats resting on their laurels while Republicans actively campaigned.
There’s no easy answer to winning these midterm elections, but what’s certain is the Biden Administration and Congress currently have the onus to change their fate as opposed to Republicans who will rely on historical trends as the opposition.
Without going into the minutia of the elections occurring in over 18 months, we are beginning to see how the Biden Administration is planning to play their cards. Thus far, it has pushed for what on paper sounds like progressive policies and allowed its left flank room to push for policies such as a $15 minimum wage and D.C. statehood, and higher capital gains taxes.
All the while, it’s fully aware that Manchin, Sinema, and a handful of less prominent centrist Democrats will oppose this type of legislation. The calculation seems to be this will take the heat off the Democratic Party at large, while not upsetting moderate voters by actually passing the most progressive proposed legislation.
Whether this straddling strategy will change as the midterms approach or work in the Democrats’ favor will unfold over the next two years, but will likely remain constant is the power enjoyed by Manchin and Sinema. With the Senate more likely to remain close to 50-50, in a Republican or Democrat-controlled Senate the pair closer to the middle stand to enjoy their powerful position relative to their Democratic colleagues.