Today’s Edition: Four-dimensional chess.

September 21, 2021

          Joe Biden is currently negotiating with Republicans, centrist Democrats, progressive Democrats, and the Senate parliamentarian to pass his reconciliation package. In truth, he is also negotiating with the pharmaceutical industry and its lobbyists, as well as dozens of other special interest groups attempting to influence the reconciliation package. Sadly, centrist Democrats have turned out to be as recalcitrant as the GOP—apparently willing to crater both the infrastructure bill and the reconciliation package unless they get what they want on their timeline. Politico, “Scoop: Sinema issues ultimatum to Biden.” Centrist Democrats are demanding a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill now—without giving any assurances about whether or to what extent they will support the reconciliation package. That hardly seems fair.

          The intra-party negotiations are occurring against a backdrop of GOP threats to block a continuing resolution to authorize government spending and an increase in the borrowing authority of the Treasury. (Those are distinct issues, each of which has the potential to damage the economy.) See NYTimes, “Democrats to Pair Spending Bill With Raising Debt Ceiling, Pressuring G.O.P.” While congressional Democrats are engaged in a political civil war, congressional Republicans are marching in unison to a single command, saying they will not vote to increase the debt ceiling under any circumstances. See Business Insider, “Mitch McConnell Says the GOP Will Vote for US to Default on Its Debt.”

          Republicans don’t care if they plunge the nation into a recession; after all, a majority of congressional Republicans voted to override the Constitution to keep a coup-plotter in office. Republicans will gladly impose economic hardship on tens of millions of Americans to gain the political advantage of forcing Democrats to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. Whatever principles the GOP once stood for have vanished. Raw power is the only thing that matters to them. Whatever the future of governing America looks like, we should assume it does not include any participation by the GOP.

          In a sign of unhappiness with congressional gamesmanship, Wall Street traders pummeled stocks on Monday, causing the largest single-day decline in six months. (The drop also related to a potential default by one of China’s largest property developers.)

          As I wrote yesterday, Democrats need to get out of this silly and pointless partisan game. They should vote to increase the debt ceiling and have confidence in their ability to explain that Republicans are acting like political terrorists. The GOP is holding a gun to the heads of hardworking Americans who depend on stability in the markets for their paychecks and retirements. Democrats are acting to keep the government running in regular order to protect Americans who work for a living. If Democrats can’t explain that fact with force and believability to voters, then we should replace them with elected officials who can.

          The behavior of centrist Democrats has been particularly disappointing. For example, Biden has proposed that Medicare be allowed to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. (Congress, in its infinite wisdom, currently prohibits Medicare from negotiating drug prices.) Because Medicare is the single largest purchaser (as insurer) of prescription drugs, it has tremendous negotiating leverage to reduce the cost of drugs covered by Medicare Part D. Indeed, those savings will help pay for Biden’s $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. Unfortunately, several congressional Democrats have said they oppose the proposal for the federal government save money by negotiating prices on behalf of Medicare recipients.  See The Hill, “Drug companies on verge of sinking longtime Democratic priority.”

          You are undoubtedly asking yourself why a handful of Democrats would oppose a plan to save taxpayer money by reducing prescription drug prices. The answer is sickening. The Democrats who have announced their opposition to the prescription drug plan have received millions in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies. See The Guardian, “Guess what the three Democrats blocking lower medication prices have in common?” As explained in The Guardian,

          The three conservative Democratic lawmakers threatening to kill their party’s drug pricing legislation have raked in roughly $1.6 million of campaign cash from donors in the pharmaceutical and health products industries. One of the lawmakers is the House’s single largest recipient of pharmaceutical industry campaign cash this election cycle, and another lawmaker’s immediate past chief of staff is now lobbying for drugmakers.

          I acknowledge that the issue of drug price negotiations by Medicare is fiendishly complicated. See Congressional Research Service, “Negotiation of Drug Prices in Medicare Part D.” But the fact that the three congressional Democrats who oppose the proposal have received millions from the pharmaceutical industry tells you all you need to know about the sincerity of their opposition to the plan. They appear to be doing the bidding of their corporate sponsors instead of serving the needs of their constituents.

          It is particularly irksome that Senator Kyrsten Sinema has told President Biden that she opposes the prescription drug plan. See Politico, “Sinema tells White House she’s opposed to current prescription drug plan.” When Sinema ran for the Senate in 2018, she campaigned on the promise of lowering costs for prescription drugs. After she was elected, Sinema became one of the leading recipients of political donations from drug companies. See Kaiser Health News, “A Senator From Arizona Emerges As A Pharma Favorite.” Sinema collected $120,00 in contributions from drug companies during her first two years in the Senate. As explained in the KHN story above,

          It all adds up to a bet by drug companies that the 43-year-old Sinema, first elected to the Senate in 2018, will gain influence in coming years and serve as an industry ally in a party that also includes many lawmakers harshly critical of high drug prices and the companies that set them.

          The drug companies’ investment in Sinema is about to pay dividends to the pharma industry to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. A good portion of that money will come from the pockets of Medicare recipients who will be faced with higher co-pays for more expensive drugs.

          Centrist Democrats like Sinema and the three House members who are opposing the prescription drug plan are making a serious mistake. They are badly out-of-step with the majority of voters of all political persuasions who favor lower prescription drug prices. Moreover, if Sinema and other centrist Democrats kill the reconciliation package, they will also veto expanding Medicare coverage for dental and vision, free tuition for community college, childcare subsidies, and investments in American businesses.

          If Sinema kills the reconciliation package, she will be a one term Senator. Indeed, odds are that she will be a one-term Senator no matter what. See the thoughtful analysis by Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo, “Kyrsten Sinema’s Final Senate Term.”

          To return to my thesis, Biden is playing four-dimensional chess with a variety of actors who seem not to care about the American people. The exception is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which is supporting Biden’s agenda without reservation—and which accommodated the demands of the centrists on the bipartisan bill when Biden asked them to do so. For all of the bad press progressive Democrats get, they are turning out to be the most loyal and disciplined wing of the party.

          So, will Biden’s legislative agenda come to naught? That seems unlikely, but if it does, we will be in the same position we would have been in if Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossoff had not pulled off their unlikely victories in 2020. The Democratic caucus is weak because its margins are thin. If Biden’s agenda all comes tumbling down in 2021, the answer is to increase his majority in 2022, and then deal with Sinema in 2024. In the meantime, let’s focus on electing Democrats up and down the ballot so we are in a strong position in 2022 and 2024. In that regard, read on!

Elections in Virginia.

A reader sent a note reminding me that state-level elections are occurring in Virginia now. Offices on the ballot include Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and the House of Delegates. See Ballotpedia, “Virginia elections, 2021.” The Virginia elections in 2021 may serve as a bellwether for 2022. If Democrats lose ground in protecting their majority in the House of Delegates, it may unfairly create a media narrative that “Democrats are in trouble” because of Biden. Although I wish that voters were immune to such stories, they are not. Momentum matters, morale matters, winning matters. The reader has suggested that concerned Democrats can donate to the Virginia House Speaker’s PAC.

Concluding Thoughts.

Several readers recommended an op-ed by Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post, “Trump’s election mobilized a resistance of women.” In the essay, Rubin describes her transformation from a loyal Republican to a first-time Democratic voter. In a passage cited by several readers, Rubin writes,

          I now worry that Democrats lack the instinct for the jugular needed to expose the GOP’s seditious conduct, habitual lying and radical obstructionism. The Democrats’ naive belief that policies alone can win the day is misplaced when opponents will stop at nothing — not voter suppression, not remorseless disinformation and not race-baiting — to secure power.

          Despite her worry that Democrats are not “going for the jugular,” she remains confident that they will prevail. She writes,

          Democracy’s secret weapon? Its women warriors. They know how to organize, how to transform themselves into activists and candidates, and how to speak to voters who don’t automatically vote for anyone with a “D” next to his or her name.

          Empirically, Rubin is right. Women elected Joe Biden, especially women of color. Biden’s margin of victory among women was 15%, while Trump garnered an 8% advantage over Biden among men.  Much of Biden’s legislative agenda speaks to the concerns of women for the needs of their family (medical benefits, childcare, education).

          Despite the current mess in Washington, Biden is likely to deliver substantial support to families—which should reinforce his support among women. Reading Rubin’s op-ed increased my sense of confidence going into 2022. As always, we should be realistic about the challenges of mid-term elections for an incumbent president’s party, but we should also recognize that these are not normal times. Democrats have structural advantages in the demographics of the electorate. By paying attention to those constituencies, we can overcome the conventional wisdom and prevail in 2022.

          Talk to you tomorrow!