Why Can’t Democrats Govern?

President Biden and Congressional Democrats, please wake up.

That’s it? That’s all it took? The moderate and progressive Democrats saying, in effect, “You vote for our bill and we’ll vote for yours?”

I’m not a flapping mouth on CNN. I’m not a pollster or political science professor. I’m simply a run-of-the-mill, registered Democrat. And I’m disgusted.

Like many, I wonder whether the outcomes in Virginia, and in county and municipal elections throughout the nation, had been different had the dysfunctional House Democrats managed to pass the stalled infrastructure and Build Back Better bills in August or September or even October.

On my suburban Connecticut street, my view is the prevalent one. Like most neighbors, we stop and chat. Since 2016, our default topic has been politics.

As a group, we represent the breadth of what passes these days as the Democratic Party. Meaning, we share broad goals, but not in any common order or degree of commitment.

There is one bedrock issue, however, that unites us: a belief in the seeming inability of the party to effectively govern, except as modern-day stand-ins for Moe, Larry and Curly. As one of my neighbors said recently, “We got rid of Donald Trump and elected a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, but what was the point?”

Like the rest of us, he had looked hopefully to the Biden administration as a return to competency. Yet to us it has seemed to be anything but. My gosh, according to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll conducted just after Election Day, President Biden’s approval rating was 38% — in the ballpark with Trump’s.

We can’t quite understand it. Other than the nightmarish military withdrawal from Afghanistan, one could argue that much of what has transpired during the Biden administration, both the good and the bad, would have played out pretty much the same, no matter which party held power.

That is what has made this intramural House fight over when and how to pass a pair of potentially far-reaching bills so infuriating to voters like me, because this time there was no question the Democratic Party controlled the outcome. Making the standoff even more pointless was this: Whatever the House ultimately includes in its Build Back Better bill, the Senate is certain to dilute.

Are my neighbors and I missing something? I contacted my congressman, Rep. Jim Himes, a seven-term Democrat with a reputation for pragmatism, to find out. Turns out he is nearly as pessimistic as are we.

Himes took umbrage with the notion that Democrats are incapable of effectively governing. Little surprise there.

He believes, too, that the impasse affected state and local election outcomes only “on the margins,” noting that the president’s low approval rating and the mechanics of our withdrawal from Afghanistan likely factored in more.

But he described the battles over the two bills and the likelihood of passing Biden’s Build Back Better bill as another matter entirely.

“There’s a reason [the infrastructure bill] got done on the Friday after Election Day, that has everything to do with people sobering up after the result of Tuesday,” he said by phone. “I think everybody in Washington understood that letting this go, not getting this done well before Election Day, was going to hurt us.”

Then he cautioned, “The progressives caved and agreed to let the infrastructure bill go by. [Sens. Joe] Manchin and [Kyrsten] Sinema cared a lot about the bipartisan infrastructure deal, and as long as it was being held hostage [by House progressives], I don’t think they were going to walk away from the Build Back Better plan.

“But now they may very well do that. I will tell you there’s a meaningful probability that next week they’re going to say, ‘We’re done. There’s going to be zero.’ And if the Build Back Better bill is spiked, the six [House progressives] who voted ‘No’ are going to look pretty prescient. And they’re going to say to the rest of us, ‘We told you so.’”

Himes placed the blame for all this on party leadership.

“This was a failure of project management,” he said. “I would like to have seen the leadership, including the president, bring all the people together in August — not October — to say, ‘We’re going to agree on the process to get this thing done by middle of October, latest.’ And that never happened. And as a result, in October we were still asking, ‘What does Kyrsten Sinema want? What does Joe Manchin want?’”

Which is another way of saying, the Democrats have proved incapable of effectively governing.

So here we stand. The 2022 elections are around the corner and the party is providing no one on my street with an incentive to vote, other than as a choice between the lesser of two evils. Caveat vana promissa. Let the bearer of false promises beware.

This essay ran originally in the New York Daily News.

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Ron Berler

Author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000* Failing Public Schools.” Has written for the New York Times Magazine, Wired and ESPN.com.