In American politics, moderates always rule the roost

Last week’s enactment of the Fiscal Reconciliation Bill 2022, also known as the Cut Inflation Act, is seen by many analysts as a major turning point in Joe Biden’s presidency. Just last month, when it looked like Congress might not pass a reconciliation bill this year, conventional wisdom in Washington suggested Biden was a failing president who should even reconsider his bid for a second term. . But once the IRA unexpectedly gained sufficient support, Biden experienced an immediate rebound in his reputation as a master of legislative success; a few hyperbolic responses even compared him to Great Society-era Lyndon Johnson. It wasn’t too surprising. Americans generally regard the president as the gravitational center around which the whole political universe revolves, responsible for almost everything – good and bad – that happens under his leadership. But the events of the past few weeks demonstrate how this view can distort the more complicated truth. What changed between July and August was not Biden’s presidential acumen, but rather the behavior of a single key senator: Joe Manchin of West Virginia. law last Tuesday. The policy areas addressed by the IRA reflected Manchin’s preferences more than those of the President or any other official. It was Manchin who coerced Biden into settling for a bill far less in scope and cost than the White House had initially favored, Manchin whose open skepticism earlier in the summer had seemed to derail prospects of passing reconciliation legislation, and Manchin (along with fellow moderate Kyrsten Sinema) who was responsible for most of the specific provisions included in the final product. He even forced a change in the bill’s name, ostensibly ditching a previous title that had echoed Biden’s “Build Back Better” campaign slogan in favor of a strategic rebrand. radiation. The ideological polarization of American politics in recent decades has steadily reduced the number of moderate members in both parties. But our current era is also historically distinguished by its remarkable degree of electoral parity. As political scientist Frances Lee has noted, Democrats and Republicans are now better balanced nationally than at any time since the late 1800s. The still narrow margins of party control in contemporary Congress ensure that the dwindling number moderates who can survive both primaries and general elections continue to maintain the balance of power between ideological pillar blocs – even during periods when the same party controls the presidency and both houses of Congress. The objection of just three Republican senators permanently blocked President Donald Trump’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act during the last period of unified party rule in 2017-18. Manchin and Sinema also used a credible threat of defection from the party line to shape the content of last year’s IRA and US bailout. When combined with the separation of powers established by the Constitution and a closure rule in the Senate that requires most bills – including, crucially, annual appropriations legislation – must pass with the support of the qualified majority, the enduring influence of the moderates explains why widening polarization has not produced dramatic changes in politics as the majority shifts from one party to another. The status quo always holds a systematic advantage over proposals for major change in either ideological direction; the most successful congressional action remains progressive and bipartisan; and no session of Congress in the Age of Polarization has yet matched the transformative productivity of the New Deal, the Great Society, or the Reagan Revolution. However, the moderates were not entirely spared from the polarization. Whereas in decades past they voted the same regardless of party – or, like the Dixiecrats of the south and the Rockefeller Republicans of the mid-20th century northeast, even overlapped on the ideological spectrum – today, the most conservative Democrat in each chamber stands sharply to the left Despite the frustration that Manchin and Sinema have caused among progressive activists over the past two years, the IRA and the US bailout were more ambitious on substance – and far more responsive to key Democratic Party priorities such as health care and climate change – than any hypothetical product of negotiations with moderate Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski would have been. So while the dwindling ranks of centrist elected officials continue to play a crucial role in shaping policy, the question of which moderate party will be empowered to provide the deciding votes has never been more significant.

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