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Democrats rule, Republicans bulldoze. Look at Ukraine.


On Monday, the House Progressive Caucus delivered a letter to President Joe Biden calling for a change of course on Ukraine. On Tuesday, they completely removed it. Was this confusing chain of events another case of “Democrats in disarray,” one of the most commonly diagnosed illnesses in American politics?

The answer lies in what happened between Monday and Tuesday. The rapid closure of a potential schism within party ranks over foreign policy is actually a story of organizational efficiency and cohesion. This shows the unity of congressional Democrats and the ability of the current ruling party to settle disputes. The top Republican in the House, meanwhile, recently bowed out in the face of similar pressure. Call it “Democrats in Array,” with a mea culpa from Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington. “As caucus chair, I accept responsibility for this,” she said.

And that stands in stark contrast to how dysfunctional congressional Republicans have become and how fringe Republicans can bully most of the party into going with them.

Here’s the full story of what happened from Politico. The letter called for more diplomatic efforts to end the Russian-Ukrainian war, but did not call for an end to US aid to Ukraine or condemn Biden’s efforts. So it was not a total rejection of the administration’s policy or anything close to a total abandonment of Ukraine. Still, it was an important break.

It caused an immediate outcry, with supporters of Ukraine and Biden’s policies – including leading House Democrats – pushing back hard. They spoke out against the idea that direct negotiations between the United States and Russia were appropriate at this point, especially with Russia’s recent claim to annex parts of that nation, evidence of war crimes, and Russian threats of future war crimes. Most foreign policy experts agreed.

There will be significant costs for those on the wrong side of this dispute, from Jayapal and signatories to the House Progressive Caucus generally. (1) This is the kind of misstep that goes beyond a cycle of bad news. This can damage reputations and with them bargaining power in the future. Jayapal blamed the staff for the episode, which is both hard to believe and unlikely to make anyone more confident in her.

For Democrats as a whole, however, what this episode demonstrates – and hardly for the first time – is the very limited influence of ideological outliers on the rest of the party.

Admittedly, House and Senate Democrats as a group are quite liberal. Even the most moderate among them are best considered moderate liberals; twenty years ago, and even ten years ago, there were more of these moderates, and they were closer to being moderate conservatives. The same is true on the Republican side. The gap between the least conservative Republicans and the least liberal Democrats has only widened.

But the power of ideological outliers is vastly different between parties. Ukraine is an excellent example. Traditional liberal Democrats, as we have seen this week, are not afraid of disagreements with the House Progressive Caucus. Indeed, many of them seem to enjoy contrasting with those who are more liberal. Mainstream Republicans, however, are terrified of any meaningful criticism from those who call themselves extreme conservatives – allowing these radicals to bully the rest of the party. We saw the results recently, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy admitting that aid to Ukraine would likely be cut off if he became president, even though the House as a whole would certainly have the votes for additional aid programs and even within the Republican conference, there will likely always be a majority to continue supporting this beleaguered nation.

It’s not that the very liberal Democrats have no influence. After all, many of their proposals were included in bills passed by House Democrats in this Congress, even though in most cases they lacked the votes to win in the Senate. Overall, the Democrats had a very liberal-friendly platform, largely the result of a presidential nominating process in which mainstream liberals prevailed over the strong performance of Senator Bernie Sanders (and to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Warren). Equally important, those who wanted to make the party less liberal were quickly eliminated.(2)

But the most liberal Democrats can’t just bulldoze their way through the rest of the party the way radical Republicans in the House regularly do. They are also unwilling to risk harming the party by pressing too hard on their differences. They mounted a quick turnaround in this episode, just as they went along with whatever they could get after Senate compromises on major legislation. It all adds up to a party that is surprisingly good at navigating their differences — and able to pass bill after bill despite extremely narrow margins in both houses of Congress. The contrast to the dysfunctional Republican Party in Congress, held hostage to the whims of the most radical members, couldn’t be clearer.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Obama is more valuable as an expert than as a politician: Matthew Yglesias

• Democrats focus on the wrong issues: Ramesh Ponnuru

• Biden is unpopular, but the Democrats are not: Jonathan Bernstein

(1) Jayapal’s statement said the caucus, not the 30 signatories, was withdrawing the letter.

(2) Biden himself did not come forward with a moderate intention to move the party to the center; he presented himself as a traditional liberal, right in the middle of the party ideologically.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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