But if disappointed progressives are looking for a Democrat to blame, they should consider directing their ire toward one of their party’s founders: James Madison. Madison’s Constitution was built to thwart exactly what Democrats have been attempting: a race against time to impose vast policies with narrow majorities. Madison believed that one important function of the Constitution was to ensure sustained consensus before popular majorities could prevail.
Democrats do represent a popular majority now. But for Madison, that “now” is the problem: He was less interested in a snapshot of a moment in constitutional time than in a time-lapse photograph showing that a majority had cohered. The more significant its desires, Madison thought, the longer that interval of coherence should be. The monumental scale of the Build Back Better plan consequently raises a difficult Madisonian question: Is a fleeting and narrow majority enough for making history?
In this Madisonian sense, Democrats are tripping over their own boasts. Even in announcing that the spending plan had been scaled back, President Biden repeatedly called the measure “historic.” No fewer than four times in a single statement, his White House described elements of the Build Back Better framework as the most important policy innovations in “generations.” Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, called the bill the House passed last week “historic, transformative and larger than anything we have done before.”