Congressman Ro Khanna is one of the most influential progressives inside the House Democratic Caucus. He represents California’s 17th District — a large chunk of Silicon Valley. It’s wealthy, influential and home to companies like Apple, Intel and Cisco Systems.
Today, Playbook co-author Ryan Lizza asks Khanna what went wrong trying to pass President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan and what he thinks progressives’ influence on Biden has been. Khanna also suggests how Democrats can improve their prospects going into the midterms. Transcribed excerpts from that conversation are below, edited for length and readability.
Rep. Ro Khanna: Biden has a great sense of humor. I don’t think he’d mind sharing this — or a sense of humor of putting you at ease. When we were discussing the Build Back Better, I said, “Mr. President, why don’t you just get Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin in the room and hammer this out? You don’t need all these conversations. You could just cut the deal and whatever those two agree with, with you, that’ll be the roadmap.” And he looks at Peter Welch, who is the congressman from Vermont, and he says, “You know, Ro thinks he knows Bernie because he was the co-chair. But Peter, you and I know Bernie, right?” And he says, “What Ro’s asking for is homicide, to put them in a room.” And he says, “It’d be like, Ro, you and me boxing. I’d beat the hell out of you but why would we want to see it?” So, you know, it’s a disarming humor and it was in good faith.
Ryan Lizza: That’s actually like a very revealing story about what happened last year. Let’s break down why they couldn’t do [Build Back Better] it last year. What’s your big explanation for what happened?
Khanna: We should have compromised with Manchin earlier, I mean in retrospect. I’m still talking to him. I’m still hoping.
Lizza: I want to get into that. But how did it all fall apart?
Khanna: I think the president’s numbers turned after Afghanistan, when they started to pull back. There was an expectation — a false expectation — that they could just roll Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and they’d get in line. I think it was based on the fact that everyone was unified after the American Rescue Plan.
If you talk to Manchin, he’ll tell you — and I’m not saying anything that he wouldn’t say himself — but he had made it clear that he was willing to do certain things in the American Rescue Plan that he wasn’t willing to do on this, Build Back Better. And there was the hope that the momentum and everything will carry it. Ultimately, Manchin usually votes with the party and the chips would fall in line. That was the strategic calculation.
Lizza: And why was that wrong?
Khanna: Well, it was wrong because Manchin didn’t agree. I don’t think there’s anyone who in retrospect wouldn’t say look we should’ve made the compromise, right?
Lizza: When you look back, was there a moment where you think, “Shit. That’s the moment we should have cut that deal with the White House and Manchin,” there was a window?
Khanna: Before the end of the year, something went off. I’d been having for six months, seven months constructive conversations with Manchin.
Lizza: You were personally?
Khanna: Yes. And we have a good rapport.
Lizza: Have you been on the houseboat?
Khanna: No, I have not been on the boat. He invited me because I’ve been passionate about [getting] these tech jobs into rural communities. And so I went to Beckley, West Virginia. We had spent 45 minutes together in 2017 where he was talking about the state and he loved the idea of having these tech jobs come to Beckley. Gordon Gee, who is the president of West Virginia [University], is close to him. I’ve helped him get support in Silicon Valley.
So I’ve had a relationship with Manchin, and I’ve never questioned his motives or questioned his word in the process. Look, we have disagreements but he’s coming from a place of his philosophy, and we’ve got to find a compromise. And so he’s always said he wants to work and come to a compromise. I thought we had a lot of momentum before the end of the year and then something went wrong.
I really believe that Manchin does want to come to an agreement. But that moment is different at different times, right? So there have been moments where he wants to. I don’t know where he is now but there have been those moments. And so we’ve got to figure out how.
My point to the progressives has been if we don’t get climate now, who knows what happens in the midterms, right? It’s an unknown. When are we going to get climate? This is our shot. So if you have to have some increase in something you don’t want on fossil fuel production, just in a little basis, but we get $500 billion of renewable energy that’s going to have an impact on the whole world and it’s going to help us rebuild America, do it. Take the deal.
Lizza: I was going to say, what’s the reaction to, like, your fellow CPC [Congressional Progressive Caucus] members?
Khanna: It was a hard “no” probably back in September of last year. It’s softer by November, December. Now, the latest article I saw on POLITICO where a lot of members now are okay. We’re willing to compromise. I believe to this day that if the president comes to a deal with Manchin and it’s reasonable and you get a couple of progressives behind it that the thing will pass.
Here’s what can’t happen. Fifteen senators afterward can’t text Manchin to say, “Okay, we need this, too.” Like, just cut the deal, vote on it, and get it done.
Lizza: I wonder if you could take us through a little bit of what the range of strategic advice is within the Congressional Progressive Caucus? You often seem to me at least to have a different approach to making the case for the progressive point of view than some of your colleagues. You talk about compromise and giving Manchin the pen and not questioning motives
Khanna: What did we do wrong? I think when we attack people like Manchin, in some ways, we’re attacking his voters. Instead, I think we have to also listen and say, “What are we missing? Why is it that so many parts of the country are upset? And how are we going to respond in a constructive way to them?”
I think that the genius of Obama in one way was that he said, “Look, I don’t even belong on this stage.” Literally, he said that. “But you, America, are so great that you’re giving me a chance.” It’s American greatness. The vote for Obama was affirming American greatness, not Obama’s greatness. We have to appeal to that sense, which I fundamentally believe that we’re going to become this first multiracial, multiethnic democracy in the world.
Of course it’s a product of your own story, right? How can you not believe that, as a son of immigrants, born in Philadelphia, and the country gives me the chance to represent the most powerful place economically in the world at the age of 40? Would Germany put a son of a first-generation immigrant in charge of their most important industry region? No.
So those are the places where it’s the shaping of the narrative. Then finally, because if you come from a view that you don’t have the monopoly on the truth, you may be less judgmental. You may just say, “You know, I disagree.” I was on Neil Cavuto with Fox News and he got the better of the argument. I did better… Well, I will give myself an A-minus on the Fox News Sunday reports. Cavuto got the better of the argument.
Lizza: What was the argument?
Khanna: It was on my windfall profit tax, which is to tax the oil companies and have the refund out. I still believe in the bill but I didn’t think of his points, which were, “Okay, well, why aren’t you taxing Apple Computers and they make bigger margins and why this?”
Lizza: It’s pretty rare to hear a congressman say they went on Fox and had a debate about a bill they really care about and that the anchor made some points you didn’t think of.
Khanna: But that’s the whole point of going on, right? I mean, now I’m much better armed in thinking about those arguments. So I can have a better shot at convincing the independents in my district because I now have a response.
You know, he said, “Well, Keystone Pipeline” — he has this point. Cavuto is one of the thoughtful anchors but he said, “You know, didn’t Biden by not having the Keystone Pipeline hurt the oil prices?” And I said, “No, he didn’t because the production would have been two years out.” And Cavuto, which it’s amazing that they have this type of thought there, said, “Well, what about the future oil prices? Because you know, Congressman, that it’s not just current production, it’s future production that’s factored into current price.”
I gave an answer that wasn’t very compelling. Later on, I looked it up and what I should have said is, “Well, Keystone is less than 1 percent of production of oil price.” But the point is, if I hadn’t gone on Fox News and I hadn’t subjected myself to that debate and I hadn’t probably lost the debate in that moment, I would never think of the counterarguments. I’d never think of the weaknesses in my own point of view.
I feel so much of the Democratic Party right now is, we say if they disagree with us, they’re morally wrong. And that’s not the American way. The perspective is to subject yourself to the debate, what Douglass called the free ear of America of ideas.
Lizza: So when the issue comes up of whether Democrats should boycott Fox or not — correct me if you think I’m wrong about this — but it probably matters what show and what specific host.
Lizza: Some of them you are not going to have a necessarily good-faith debate with.
Lizza: But you’re generally of the view that, go test your arguments in that sort of crucible rather than the position that some Democrats take, which is “Fox News is irredeemable and we shouldn’t go on at all.”
Khanna: I am of that view that you should go on not just because it’s the politically smart thing to do because it will help you test your ideas, which allow you — right, in the modern media age…
Lizza: Are there limits to that though?
Khanna: Yeah, sure.
Lizza: Would you go on Tucker?
Khanna: I haven’t gone on Tucker. I mean, recently. I went on early on. But, yeah, there are limits. Obviously, there are limits. To anything there are limits.
Lizza: But you’re more inclined to go than not go, if you get asked?
Khanna: I did Ben Shapiro. I’m more inclined to go than not go, partly because it forces you to have an engagement. It’s this interesting thing, right? It used to be that you had to come from a very conservative moderate district to test out your ideas. Now you can actually come from a pretty liberal place and test out your ideas and see if they are resonating.
Lizza: You mean like with Fox News?
Khanna: With a Fox News! I think it’s one of the reasons that our great politicians, Bill Clinton and Obama, were so effective is that they actually spent a lot of time in places where people didn’t agree with them.
Lizza: Obama says that all the time. That going to Southern Illinois was the key to him understanding a lot of Americans outside of Chicago.
Khanna: There’s a friend of mine who’s putting a roundtable together, closed, not with the press, with 15 Maytag folks who were laid off to see what they are going to think of this jobs in tech and other messages, right?
Engaging politically is important. But I would argue it’s substantively important. How can you be for unifying the country — that can’t mean unify the county just on my terms, with my particular vision of the truth. It’s got to be, “I want to engage with people and find where the common ground for the modern body politic is.” It doesn’t mean you compromise total principles, but you have to engage.
So when people say, “Should we just write off Ohio or some of these states,” I say it’s not just politics if you believe what Obama believed in 2004, that if you want to bring this country together — which is one of the deepest aspirations of people — then you have to care substantively about these communities and try to find that common ground.